District residents worry new Congress will interfere with D.C. laws, programs

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 8:41 PM

The Columbia Heights couple planned to spend the holidays mulling over seating assignments and experimenting with apple pie recipes for the 80 guests invited to their spring wedding. Instead, William Neville and Daniel Rehbehn will head to the courthouse in the next few days to file their marriage papers, concerned that the newly elected Congress could undo the District's recent law that allows gay couples to marry.

"While part of me wants to take a principled stand and not change any plans, it's not something I want to risk our marriage on," said Neville, who will still hold a separate spring wedding with his partner. "There may be a limited window."

In Southeast Washington, single mother Ravenia Boyd-Gordon was elated when her two children were awarded scholarships last year to help pay for private-school tuition. But the D.C. vouchers were quickly rescinded by the Obama administration because of uncertainty over funding from Congress.

"I was in a jam," Boyd-Gordon said. "When you have children, you have to plan ahead. It set me back at least a year in planning a direction for their education."

Congressional oversight and budget control of the District means that the rules governing life in the federal city can change with the whims of Capitol Hill lawmakers. For gay couples, parents relying on private school vouchers, prospective medical-marijuana patients and those trying to stem the spread of HIV and AIDS with clean needles, nothing is ever settled, it seems.

With a new, more conservative Congress taking control next month, many in the District fear a rollback of new city laws, including same-sex marriage and legalized medical marijuana. Although local issues are not necessarily on the priority list of incoming congressional leaders, District policies will be when the Republican-controlled House reviews annual funding for the city in the spring.

Robert J. Kabel, chairman of the D.C. Republican Party, said he expects some push-back from GOP newcomers.

"D.C. should be left to run its own house," said Kabel, who last year urged congressional Republicans not to oppose the D.C. Council's gay marriage bill. "We're adults here. We're running our city like we should, whether we make the right or wrong decisions. We're like any other city, and we should be left alone."

But the District of Columbia is not like other cities. For years, Congress has used its power to take on abortion funding and gun control by tacking on so-called riders to D.C. budget bills. Congress has blocked a voter-approved ballot measure that allows for the use and distribution of medical marijuana and prohibited the District from using local tax dollars to provide clean needles to drug addicts and from helping low-income women pay for abortions.

In the brief period that Democrats have controlled both chambers of Congress, lawmakers have taken a series of steps designed to give the District greater autonomy. Residents have watched as the ban was lifted on needle-exchange funding. The D.C. government is reviewing regulations that allow for medical-marijuana dispensaries throughout the city. And in March, 151 gay couples filed for marriage licenses in the District after Congress allowed a same-sex marriage law to take effect.

Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, a nonprofit group that advocates for voting rights, said much of the meddling occurred during the "dark days," when the city's finances were overseen by a financial control board created by Congress.

"I would not assume that simply because the leadership has changed that the progress is in jeopardy," Smith said. "There are too many national problems at stake here for the Congress to again start spending precious capital on second-guessing D.C. residents on what are purely local issues."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company