At a time when D.C. residents want to be focused on voting rights and statehood, home rule, won in 1973 after more than 170 years of autocratic rule by Congress, is on the line.
House Republicans, otherwise intent on reducing the federal government’s power, are diving into city decision-making. After first taking away the District’s limited vote on the House floor, they moved aggressively to impose their ideology on D.C. residents. While Democrats were in the majority, we had removed all anti-home-rule riders for the first time. But, with an assist from the Obama administration and Senate Democrats, Republicans succeeded in reimposing a ban on the District’s use of its own funds for abortions for poor women and starting a new private school voucher program. Republicans were even prepared to shut down the District government over federal spending.
In response, fed-up D.C. officials took to the streets — and the jails. But House Republicans still have brazen designs on the District. A national anti-choice bill (H.R. 3), containing an unprecedented provision making the D.C. abortion rider permanent, is due to reach the floor next month. A bill eliminating the city’s gun safety laws has been reintroduced. Republicans have also threatened the District’s marriage equality law.
Congress gave home rule to the District with only specific stated exceptions. We cannot allow this Congress to support home rule except when it doesn’t. If Republicans succeed in blurring the lines between the home-rule government and the wishes of Congress, or even the wishes of some D.C. officials or residents, our opponents will take full advantage.
The Post editorial board strongly supports home rule but, like the House Republicans, makes vouchers the exception.
However, House Speaker John Boehner’s new D.C. voucher program was unnecessary, both because we have public charter schools as our alternative to traditional public schools and because, in any case, the District would have had vouchers until the last student in the old program graduated many years from now. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams supported vouchers when the program was created, but most D.C. Council members at that time opposed them. Later, Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray were careful not to indicate support for vouchers but only for a “three-sector approach” that included funding for public and charter schools when questioned by a House Appropriations subcommittee. Today, Mayor Gray opposes vouchers, and five council members wrote Congress opposing them, but six others wrote in support, perhaps fearful that Republicans would hold D.C. public and charter school funding hostage to voucher funding. Like their elected officials, D.C. residents hold differing opinions on vouchers, not to mention on many other controversial issues, such as abortion and marriage equality.
Boehner introduced his voucher bill without consulting local officials; he knew he could not get the necessary consensus from the home-rule government. Republicans, who are cutting billions of dollars from public education, have not brought a national voucher bill to the floor because state referendum results show national opposition. Home rule has no meaning if congressional Republicans can simply impose their will.
And, predictably, it turns out there is no free lunch when it comes to the speaker’s choices for the District. Ominously, the 2012 House Republican budget proposes to pay for the new voucher program by means-testing the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program, even though in-state tuition to public institutions is not means-tested elsewhere in the United States. Republicans would cripple a program that has been necessary to doubling college attendance.
Home rule means democratic self-government, a principle that does not concede exceptions, whether for Congress or for the rest of us. The local government’s position must stand, even when we disagree. When the local government has no position, none of us is a legitimate proxy for the home-rule government in a democracy.
The writer, a Democrat, is Washington’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.