House D.C. spending bill includes funding cuts, abortion ban

June 15, 2011

The first draft of the House’s 2012 D.C. spending bill would cut federal payments to the District by almost 10 percent but mostly spare the city from restrictive “riders” on social policy.

The bill, which was released Wednesday and will be considered by a House appropriations subcommittee Thursday, does include a ban on the District using its funds to pay for abortions for low-income women. That prohibition, which Republicans imposed during their last tenure in the House majority, was also included in the short-term spending deal agreed to in April by President Obama and the GOP. The agreement sparked anger and protests among local officials.

The new measure also includes a ban on the use of federal funding for the District’s needle exchange and medical marijuana programs but, notably, does not prevent the city from using local money for those items. The bill is silent regarding D.C.’s same-sex marriage and gun-control laws.

Those omissions represent a victory for local activists, but only a temporary one. More riders could be added via amendments from conservative lawmakers, either when the measure reaches the full Appropriations Committee or when it hits the House floor.

“We are deeply disappointed that the bill retains the 2011 abortion rider, and we will insist that the Senate and the administration oppose it,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said, but she thanked Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) — the chairman of the subcommittee handling the bill — for leaving the other riders out.

DC Vote, a group that advocates for home rule, was also critical of the measure.

“It’s not [okay] in our view to say, ‘We’re only going to mess with the District a little bit,’” said Ilir Zherka, the group’s executive director.

Since the April negotiations — during which Obama reportedly said to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), “John, I will give you D.C. abortion” — local officials and activists have scrambled to prevent history from repeating itself. They have lobbied Senate Democrats to resist whatever riders House Republicans implement, and Norton urged Obama to support D.C. autonomy during a White House meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus.

The spending bill includes a $637 million federal payment to the District for fiscal 2012, $62 million less than the city got for 2011 and $80 million less than Obama requested in his budget.

That annual federal outlay comprises roughly 2 percent of the District’s operating budget, so the effect of the cuts on the city’s overall fiscal picture would be relatively small. The D.C. Council passed a $10.8 billion budget for the city Tuesday.

“Will a reduction of federal payment funding have an impact? Of course,” said David Umansky, spokesman for the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer. “As with any cut, it just depends what is cut specifically and by what amount.”

The bill includes an $18.5 million reduction for D.C. courts, although it “provides for important public safety and security programs, including increases to the D.C. Superior Court and the Offender Supervision Agency,” the appropriations panel said in a news release.

The measure also includes a $17.5 million cut in funding for school improvements. It provides $20 million for D.C. opportunity scholarships, a private-school voucher program that has divided local officials but is a top priority for Boehner.

The measure also cuts funding for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program by $5 million, but Norton’s office said the program has enough leftover money that students should not feel any impact.

The bill is scheduled for consideration by the full Appropriations Committee next Thursday, and tentatively slated to hit the House floor in early July. It also carries funding for the Treasury Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the White House and other federal agencies that are often the subject of controversy.

House Republicans, who have been looking to cut spending across the federal government, have been allowing lawmakers free reign to offer amendments on the floor during appropriations debates. The open process makes it even more likely than in past years that members will offer a variety of amendments affecting the District.

“That makes us very concerned,” Zherka said.

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