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

By Ann E. Marimow
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 But the D.C. vouchers were quickly rescinded by the Obama administration because of uncertainty over funding from Congress.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."

The District also provides something of a political test for Republicans, who seized control of the House and made gains in the Senate by campaigning to shrink the size of the federal government and by largely avoiding discussion of polarizing social issues.

Incoming-mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, said that the District could serve as a proving ground for a Republican Party that "has been very clear it wanted to stay out of the business of local and state governments."

One of the central figures for the GOP has been Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), the ranking member of the House subcommittee that has oversight of the District. Chaffetz introduced a resolution opposing the medical-marijuana law and a bill that would have required a citywide referendum on the same-sex marriage law.

Chaffetz was named Friday to chair a separate subcommittee, but he said in an interview that he still would be involved in District issues. With Democrats controlling the Senate and President Obama in the White House, however, Chaffetz said, "I'm not going to get involved in these issues just to push forward message bills. I want to accomplish things."

Chaffetz said that he has no "immediate plans" to block the District's same-sex marriage law, but he did not rule out using the budget process to ban funding for needle-exchange programs and abortions. "That's where we can attack these issues," he said.

Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the Family Research Council's legislative organization, said the group would also weigh in on District matters.

"Where does Obama want to pick a fight? Will he veto an appropriations bill simply because it takes away taxpayer funding for needle-exchange programs?"

A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

But it is those scenarios that concern Phil Terry-Smith, executive director of PreventionWorks!, a nonprofit that runs one of the District's four needle-exchange programs that received $730,000 in fiscal 2011.

"We're all hoping and praying we simply don't turn the clock back," said Terry-Smith, who noted that 3 percent of District residents have HIV or AIDS, one of the highest rates in the nation. "It's just completely moronic to do anything that would interfere with any effort to curb that trend."

McClusky's group also worked closely with opponents of the same-sex marriage law who tried unsuccessfully to require a referendum on the measure. He said last month that the group could press Congress to put the law on the ballot in a citywide vote.

Although the majority of District residents surveyed in a Washington Post poll in January supported same-sex marriage, about six in 10 residents said they would prefer a vote.

But it's unclear how residents would react to Congress ordering a vote on the local law. In 1992, District voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum on the death penalty placed on the ballot by Congress.

When District lawyer Sharra Greer stood in line with her partner in the spring to file their marriage papers, she noted the potentially fleeting nature of the historic day. Looking ahead to the new Congress, she said she feels somewhat relieved they married when they did.

"They can stop new people from getting married, but they can't take it back," she said.

But that's little comfort to the Columbia Heights couple. Said Rehbehn, "It's heartbreaking knowing that no one has our back."

As local officials prepare to press congressional leaders such as Chaffetz to stay out of District affairs, at least one group of D.C. parents is eager for Republicans to take charge of the House. Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, said she has already met with and gotten a commitment from the next House speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), to try to resurrect the voucher program.

"We've gained a lot of new friends and a lot of people who will stand with the children of the District," Walden Ford said of the November election results.

Since 2004, the program has provided low-income D.C. students with as much as $7,500 in scholarships to attend private schools. But the program is opposed by teacher unions and other groups that often support Democrats, because they say the program siphons money from public education. Obama and Congress reached a compromise in the spring to cut funding for new students while continuing to pay for those already in the program.

An effort in the Senate to reauthorize the program failed in March, and even with Republicans picking up seats, they will still be short of a majority in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Former D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, a Democrat who supports the program, called it a "huge opportunity for the president to extend an olive branch and find some common ground" with the new leadership.

Boyd-Gordon, the mother in Southeast, watched last fall as Obama said on NBC's "Today" show that his daughters could not receive from the public schools the same academic experience that they receive at their private school.

"If you feel that way, how do you think I feel?" Boyd-Gordon said of the president. "Why shouldn't everyone else have the opportunity?"

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