The Washington Post

D.C. budget autonomy, abortion fight puts principle above practicality

Norton and Gray said they “agonized” over rejecting Issa’s deal. (Gerald Martineau/For The Washington Post)

But, for anyone who has watched how the arc of voting-rights activism has bent in the past four years, it was fait accompli that city officials would reject the deal. No compromises. No deals. We deserve nothing less than full “self-determination,” to use Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s favored phrase.

That sentiment is impossible for most self-respecting city residents to deny. What’s also hard to deny is that the budget autonomy bill offered by Issa (R-Calif.) would have a significant positive impact on how the city government would operate.

It would be in no danger of failing to provide basic city services in the case of a federal government shutdown. The city would also be freer to adopt the July 1 fiscal year used by most states and municipalities rather than the federal Oct. 1 fiscal year, making school budgeting and management much, much simpler. Most basically, it would be free to spend the money it raised locally without Congress saying otherwise.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) herself called the bill “extraordinary in its scope and its deference and understanding of the city.” But the abortion rider — like any spending restriction — meant the deal was DOA. When your movement is predicated on principle, it’s hard to betray that principle even in part.

For the practical argument for taking the deal, look to former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who laid it out for the Associated Press:

Davis said ... district leaders were “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“They need to learn to take some victories. I think the budget autonomy is critical. The reality is, with this Congress, that’s the best they’re going to do,” said Davis, who occasionally advises Gray on how to deal with Congress. “I understand the difficulty — I get it. But leadership is not always having perfect choices.”

Easy for Davis to say, of course — as a Virginia resident, he enjoys the full complement of voting rights. And do understand his view is informed by the fact that city leaders chose to reject a deal he meticulously orchestrated to give the city a House vote after a gun rider was attached.

Unlike the gun rider, D.C. already has the abortion rider — in fact, it has had it all but three years since 1988 — and it does not look to be going away anytime soon. Ask President Barack Obama, who earlier this year told House Speaker John Boehner “I will give you D.C. abortion” during budget negotiations this spring.

Abortion restrictions are not escaping Republican Party orthodoxy anytime soon, and as long as Democrats see D.C. abortion spending as an “easy give” for other concessions, it will remain that way. So why not bow to practicalities and make a deal?

As the Post’s Ben Pershing reported today, more than the abortion rider might have been attached to the bill as it made its way through Congress. The addition of riders dealing with guns and needle exchange and medical marijuana together might have been too much.

But if the deal is abortion for budget autonomy, it might be worth thinking longer and harder. Note that city leaders, for instance, have not shown themselves to be particularly interested in the practicalities of the abortion rider. Consider that during the brief period during which the city was allowed to fund abortions, it spent $185,000 over a nine-month period, according to figures provided to the Associated Press. Since then, the private, volunteer-operated D.C. Abortion Fund has been running on a shoestring while politicians who raise many thousands of dollars a year for their own campaigns and constituent service accounts haven’t done much to help.

But, hey, at least we still have our principles.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.


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