Bargaining away the District’s rights

April 11, 2011

IT WAS PRETTY clear during the tense budget negotiations that nearly closed the federal government that there is a lot Democrats and Republicans don’t agree about. What unites the two sides, though, is their utter disregard — if not contempt — for those who make their home in the District of Columbia. That President Obama personally dealt away the District’s autonomy in order to get a budget deal is pretty much all anyone needs to know to understand why there’s been so little progress in getting voting and other rights for the District. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

“John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it,” Mr. Obama was quoted as saying by Post reporters who re-created the scenario in which the District was used as a bargaining chip with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). House Republicans had been pressing for restrictions on federal funding of Planned Parenthood but instead accepted the counteroffer barring the District from using local money to give low-income women access to elective abortions. D.C. officials were rightly outraged at being sold out, and on Monday evening they staged a noisy protest near the Hart Senate Office Building in which Mayor Vincent C. Gray and others were arrested.

By any measure, the trade-off of D.C. abortion rights is absurd. The money involved — a miniscule $62,300 since August, when the program was restarted — is locally raised and plays no role whatsoever in whether the federal budget is balanced. The Hyde amendment already restricts the use of federal funds for abortion. Then there’s the fact that 17 states do the same thing as the District in providing local funds for abortion services; where was the ruckus about that?

Logic, of course, doesn’t much matter. Without a vote in the House or any voice in the Senate, the District, as its nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), told the New York Times, is “a sitting duck” for other people’s political agendas. Even a program with proven medical success in fighting HIV/AIDS, such as the locally funded needle-exchange program, frighteningly came into play during the negotiations, although it — at least for the time being — thankfully appears to have been spared. Another result of the negotiations was the inclusion of funds to provide vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools, to which some local officials also objected. To our mind, the vouchers are in a different category, since they involve federal money that the District otherwise would not receive for a program that enjoys considerable local support.

It’s infuriating that Republicans who invoke the sanctity of democracy and local control when it’s convenient forget those values when it comes to the District. It’s disappointing that Democratic leaders who profess to support the District — most prominently, Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) — view the city’s right to self-government as a principle that can be bargained away for the best price. Their unwillingness to defend the rights of D.C. residents can only encourage more Republican attacks on home rule.

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