The House voted yesterday to prohibit the District from legalizing marijuana for medical purposes or providing clean needles to drug addicts, reversing a House panel's move last week to eliminate such restrictions on the city.
The votes came just before the full House adopted the District's $4.7 billion budget for fiscal 2000 on a 333 to 92 vote. Although D.C. officials criticized the medical-marijuana and clean-needle votes as unwanted intrusions on home rule, they generally were satisfied by a budget debate they said has included fewer such reversals of local decisions than in previous years.
The District's budget now will wind its way through a House-Senate conference committee, which next week will iron out differences in the two chambers' versions of the city's spending plan.
The Senate version of the budget bill, adopted earlier this month, does not contain the bans on a medical-marijuana law or needle exchanges, which supporters say could greatly reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. President Clinton, rejecting GOP arguments that needle exchange programs encourage drug use, has threatened to veto the budget bill if the needle exchange ban is not removed.
Yesterday's final House vote came after four hours of often-emotional debate that underscored the uniqueness of the D.C. budget process, as lawmakers from across the nation--mostly conservative Republicans--tried to use the city's spending plan to make political points by attaching "riders" to the legislation.
There were some victories for the District, however.
By a two-vote margin, the House rejected a proposed ban on adoption by unmarried couples, which critics said was aimed at homosexuals. And although it banned any medical-marijuana law, the House voted to allow the District to release the results of a 1998 voter initiative on the issue. Last year, Congress prohibited the city from counting the votes.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called the riders "inflammatory" and "intensely anti-democratic," suggesting that they had been "taken straight out of the annals of authoritarianism."
"Congress has the right to make up policy decisions for this nation," she said on the House floor as debate on the bill began this week. "You have no right to dictate policy to a local jurisdiction."
But Norton and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), who led the Democratic debate on the bill, ultimately supported the budget, saying it will bring many benefits to the District. The House bill endorses a five-year, $300 million package of income, property and business tax cuts, the largest in D.C. history. It includes an extra $25 million to combat drug abuse and misconduct by 30,000 D.C. residents on parole or probation or awaiting trial. The bill also has $17 million to fund a program that will allow city students to attend out-of-state colleges at in-state tuition rates.
"In terms of appropriations, the city got everything it wanted, plus," Moran said.
Added Norton: "Last year, I was counting nothing but losses. This year, we had far more wins than losses."
Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, indicated that he will ask the conference committee to soften the language prohibiting the city from spending money on lawyers to argue a D.C. voting rights case. Norton's effort to strike the ban failed in a tie vote yesterday; Istook said he would ask the conference panel to allow the city to spend local money on the case, which seeks to win a vote in Congress for the District.
Istook also urged Clinton not to veto the bill, noting that it passed the House by a veto-proof majority.
"It is an extreme position for the administration to threaten to veto it simply because it prohibits using taxpayers' money to fund needle exchange programs," Istook said. "The bill's restriction on this is identical to language signed into law by the president last year."
The House restored two riders that had been rejected by the Appropriations Committee last week, related to needle exchange and medical use of marijuana. But all of the riders voted on yesterday received less support than similar measures received last year, which Norton called a sign of increasing respect in Congress for D.C. home rule.
Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt's amendment to prohibit the District from using local or federal funds for a needle exchange passed by a 241 to 187 vote, a smaller ratio than last year. Tiahrt argued that giving clean needles to addicts "enables people to carry on destructive behavior."
But Democrats and some Republicans responded that needle exchange programs--which operate in more than 110 cities--have been proven effective in limiting the spread of disease. The District, they noted, has the highest rate of new HIV infections in the country, and AIDS is the leading cause of death of residents ages 30 to 44.
"It is both arrogant and misguided," Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) said of the ban. "We would never attempt to impose the will of Congress on the citizens of Kansas."
The House defeated by a vote of 215 to 213 the amendment by Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) that would have prevented unmarried couples from adopting any of the 3,100 children in foster care in the District. The measure, which passed the House last year but was removed by a House-Senate panel, was opposed by gay activists and others who argued that it would slow the pace of adoptions in the city.
"The best interest of the child and parenting skills must be the sole factors for placement in safe and loving homes--not marital status or sexual orientation," said Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.), one of 36 Republicans to vote against Largent's amendment.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said that while the House vote "ratifies the consensus budget agreed to by the District's elected leaders . . . I urge Congress and the [Clinton] administration to eliminate these unnecessary, unrelated and unwelcome intrusions into our democratic process."