SEIZING ON BUNDLES of inaccurate, sensationalist information and with no regard for any sanctity of local self-government in the capital, a majority of the House of Representatives has dealt a severe blow to the District of Columbia by striking down the city's sexual assault reform law. How this came to pass is a tragedy of errors, compounded by misinformed and slightly hysterical members of the House eager to score points at home with a cheap shot at a helpless city that has no vote in the chamber.
That the House ever came to care about this bill is one mixed-up story; what happened as a result is even worse. It began in the D.C. Council--duly created by Congress and elected by the voters of this city to act as the local legislature. After a long and careful study by one of the council's most careful legal minds--member David A. Clarke--legislation was drafted and enacted to improve the sexual assault laws and to make others more enforceable and punishable. At no time--no matter what members of the House read, thought or were told by frenzied opponents--did the local council consider any move that would have encouraged or otherwise sanctioned behavior that could be deemed immoral.
But starting with misleading words such as "legalize" that were used to describe the legislation, members of Congress and various political and religious organizations interpreted this recodification effort as a wild effort to turn Washington into Sin City. In fact, the proposed revisions would have made the laws here similar to those in the states from which so much congressional opposition arose.
But then--and this is where the real crime was committed--the opponents, including a minority of local residents urged by nervous religious leaders to plead for congressional intervention--revived the medieval days of colonial rule in the District of Columbia by pressuring the House into its vote to strike down the city's act.
There is no legal question that the House has the authority to shoot down any action of the city government--but the whole congressional idea of the charter that established the elected mayor and council in this city was to allow local government to act on purely local matters. Certain criteria were established for deciding how this congressional oversight should work:
The first question about any council-passed act is, does it violate the D.C. Charter Act? Clearly, this act did not. Second, does it violate the U.S. Constitution? No one argued that this act did. Finally, does enactment raise a federal issue or obstruct the federal interest? This one did not, except by wild stretches of prurient imagination and the most liberal interpretations of the federal interest--often by members who would never stretch the federal interest that far into their own states and laws, and whose own state laws are virtually the same as that which the District is trying to adopt.
Rep. Bob Livingston, a Republican from Louisiana, was one of the few who took the trouble to study the legislation rather than merely rely on a "Hey--dirty pictures!" fantasy about it. In a vain effort to get his colleagues off their approach, he told them:
"It does not in my reading make legal any public displays of homosexuality or any lewd or lascivious conduct. . . . I have gone through this bill extensively, and I am concerned again that the members . . . simply have not taken the time to look at District of Columbia Act 4-69. If they were to do that, they would realize that many of the rumors that have been promulgated about this particular act are not as valid as they think.
"I have to say that I have been labeled as a conservative. I am an ex-prosecutor, and I am not trying to defend homosexuality, incest or any other deviation of mankind, but what I am trying to say is, let us not run away with the emotionalism of the hour, but carefully consider if we want to overturn an act which appears to have been rationally considered by a capable deliberative body within the District of Columbia."
The vote to reject was 281 to 119--a terrible blow to home rule. Nevertheless, it should not be considered a precedent for further incursions into local government in this city, but rather as a gross aberration based on misinformation. The city should proceed to draft the best possible revision of the laws as intended--and Congress should let local democracy work in the capital city.