After months of fiery rhetoric and even a threat to jail the mayor, conservative House Republicans on Tuesday are poised to take yet another swipe at the District’s liberal leaders by trying to throw out a new law.
For the first time in 23 years, a powerful House committee has scheduled a vote to upend a D.C. law that bans employers from discriminating based on reproductive health decisions. Some conservatives have interpreted the bill to mean that employers in the District, including religious organizations, could eventually be required to provide coverage for contraception and abortions.
The odds that Congress will overturn the law remain slim. The 30-day review period for Congress to take action is more than half over, meaning both the House and Senate would have to repeal by May 2. President Obama would also have to sign off on doing so.
A more likely scenario is that the effort to repeal spills into the next federal budget battle, when Congress has the power to undo D.C. laws by restricting the city’s ability to spend its own money to carry them out.
The District may be in for a “rough go” during this year’s budget process with Republicans in charge, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the city’s nonvoting member of Congress.
The city has fought back for decades against Republican efforts to impose socially conservative policy on the federal district. A city needle exchange program, another for medical marijuana and funding for abortions have been repeated flash points. More recently, congressional Republicans and city leaders sparred fiercely over the city’s decision to move forward with legalizing marijuana.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) introduced the latest measure last month — just days before he announced his candidacy for president.
Several other Republicans have since vowed to upend the measure. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called a committee vote to rebuke a D.C. law for the first time since 1992.
In a statement from Utah on Monday, Chaffetz said he saw no choice but to take a first step toward repealing the D.C. law. He said D.C. leaders had failed to carve out an appropriate exemption for religious organizations to continue to set their own employment policies.
“As a result, the House Oversight Committee must take immediate action to prevent this flawed legislation from being law,” Chaffetz said.
Surrounded by women’s rights groups and a pro-choice Catholic group, Norton blasted the congressional interference at a news conference Monday.
Norton said Republicans were abandoning their “much professed” love of states’ rights when it suited them to score points with conservative religious constituents.
“We need to tell the country what the Congress is trying to do to a local jurisdiction here in the District of Columbia,” Norton said. “Inevitably it will be seen as a resumption of the Republican war on women.”
The D.C. measure at issue is the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act. Passed last year by the D.C. Council and signed into law in January by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the measure broadens the definition of discrimination to include an employee’s reproductive health decisions. Under the law, employers cannot discriminate against employees who seek contraception or family planning services. They also cannot act when they know an employee has used medical treatments to either initiate or terminate a pregnancy.
In testimony before the D.C. Council last fall, a spokesman for Catholics for Choice said the group knows of instances in the District in which employees have been discriminated against for such issues but did not cite specific examples.
Casey Mattox, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposed the law, said it was drafted in a way that could also require religious organizations to pay for abortions and other reproductive services that employers object to on moral grounds.
The council passed a temporary fix to the bill to make clear that religious organizations would not be responsible for such medical care, but Mattox and other critics say the fix was insufficient.
“We are certainly happy to have Congress moving forward to correct what is grossly illegal and unconstitutional and . . . bring some sanity to D.C. government,” said Mattox. “If not stopped the effect would be to eventually force employers, including pro-life organizations like the March for Life, to pay for abortions.”
Michael Czin, a Bowser spokesman, said that characterization is false and said critics have clouded the central issue, which is to prevent discrimination.
“The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and family members based on private reproductive health decisions. This legislation isn’t controversial. It’s common sense,” Czin said in an e-mail.
“There are numerous issues that deserve Congress’s immediate attention, from fixing our broken immigration system to investing in our nation’s ailing infrastructure. Meddling in D.C.’s affairs shouldn’t be one of them.”
Some Republicans have pointed to a Supreme Court decision last year to show that Congress would be within its rights to disapprove the D.C. measure. In that case, the court ruled that family-owned businesses do not have to offer their employees contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act if doing so conflicts with owners’ religious beliefs.
Mattox said that if Congress moves forward with killing the measure, it would keep D.C. taxpayers “from being on the receiving end of a large legal bill.”
Bowser is scheduled to be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, but on the Senate side of the building, where prospects for what's known as a disapproval resolution are considerably dimmer. The upper chamber’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee has not taken action on the resolution.
Another measure that remains alive in both committees would upend a separate D.C. law that lifts the exemption for religiously affiliated educational institutions from the city’s gay nondiscrimination law. Ending the exemption could require universities in the city to fund LGBT groups.
Under the District’s congressional charter, disapproval resolutions are “highly privileged” and can be brought quickly to a floor vote once passed in committee. But with only two weeks remaining in which to act, Republican leaders in both chambers eager to spend floor time on national issues like Iran and trade, and with the near certainty that Obama would veto any disapproval measure, the more likely route for congressional intervention is through the appropriations process.
Last month, an influential group of House conservatives, the Republican Study Committee, wrote to the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee handling the city budget, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), advocating that Congress “wield its constitutional ‘power of the purse’ to prevent infringement of the fundamental constitutional protections for District-based employers and institutions.” It pushed for the committee to cut funding for both the reproductive and gay rights laws.