Congress’ ‘Schoolyard Bullies’ Take Aim at D.C. Women

Lost in a netherworld where it is less than a state and something other than a city, the District of Columbia is being used by right-wingers in Congress as a battleground on reproductive justice and much more.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) compared Congress members who banned the use of local funds for poor women's abortions to "schoolyard bullies." Adele Stan / RH Reality Check

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a Tuesday press conference on the Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) praised members of a coalition working to prevent right-wing members of Congress from imposing their agenda on citizens of the District of Columbia—efforts specific to D.C. that include a recently proposed ban on abortion after 20 weeks gestation, prohibitions on abortion funding for low-income women in need, attempted interference in the District’s gun laws, and a bid to shut down D.C.’s HIV harm-reduction program.

“[W]e have shown our opponents that we are not mere prey for schoolyard bullies who gang up on the District, which does not even have a vote on the House floor with which to defend itself,” Norton said in her opening statement.

And that lack of a vote? A case in Norton’s point, perhaps. In 2010, Norton had nearly sealed a deal that would have given the District a voting member of the House of Representatives, but NRA lobbyists succeeded in adding an amendment to the bill that would have repealed D.C.’s gun-control laws, leaving sponsors little choice but to abandon the effort.

Lost in a netherworld where it is less than a state and something other than a city, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray lacks the full powers of other big-city mayors, never mind a state governor, since Congress still maintains control power over the District’s budget, even over the taxes the District collects from its citizens for running local government.

For decades this absence of full sovereignty has rendered D.C. something of a congressional plaything, but never more so than since the class of Tea Party-allied members of the House of Representatives took their seats in 2011. When it comes to matters that affect the health of D.C.’s poorest women, Congress has been especially harsh.

In 2011, Congress banned the District government from using its local tax dollars to provide abortions for women who were struggling to pay for them, as it had traditionally done. Note that we’re not talking about federal funds collected through federal taxes (which D.C. citizens also pay, despite their lack of representation in Congress); these are local funds, collected through District income tax, sales taxes, and property taxes.

And even as HIV infection rates increased among heterosexual women living in poverty in the district, Congress attempted to keep D.C. from using local tax dollars for its own needle-exchange program, even after it banned the use of all federal funds for such programs.

Joining Norton at the podium were leaders of several groups Norton counted in her coalition; after all, she added, the issues represented by these groups are those at which Tea Partiers are taking aim. Speakers included Dawn Laguens of Planned Parenthood of America, Donna Crews of AIDS United, Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and Kimberly Perry of DC Vote, a group that advocates for congressional representation for the District. D.C. Mayor Gray also addressed the gathering.

Norton noted that the coalition—which also includes NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Abortion Federation, the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Center for American Progress—has been successful in preventing all manner of social-policy riders from being attached to the District’s appropriation bill, except for the rider that prevents the District from subsidizing abortions for poor women who need them. But, Norton noted, the coalition has defeated what she called “more serious incursions in the same area,” in the form of a stand-alone bill that would have made the ban on local abortion aid to poor women permanent.

Because of its unique status, Norton said, the District of Columbia is used as foothold for some of the right’s favorite projects, be they anti-choice, pro-gun, or efforts to punish drug addicts. D.C., she said, has become “an ideological battleground.”

Take, for instance, the 20-week abortion ban proposed by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz, who famously told blogger Mike Stark that abortion is more devastating to the African-American community than slavery ever was. The bill, which was proposed—and defeated—last year as a D.C.-specific ban was reintroduced last week as a measure that would apply to all 50 states. “We might have been written off as just one jurisdiction whose local laws don’t affect others (outside of the District). Instead, our allies have recognized that our opponents are taking direct aim at them because the issues that they stand for in the public arena are the issues that our citizens have embraced in our own local laws… We are learning through our allies that the point of the 20-week D.C. bill was to get to them, and I think it’s shown that it’s the case.”

(See Rewire’s coverage of the hearing introducing the 20-week abortion ban bill, here.)

“You know,” Norton added, “we thought we would find allies among our Republican colleagues, particularly as the Tea Party Republicans took over the House, because we thought they…revere local control over federal power. We have seen that their principles stop at the District line.”

Throughout the press conference, speakers noted the disproportionate impacts these restrictions would have on people of color in the District of Columbia, the population of which is about half African-American with a sizable share of Latinos. Indeed, casual talk in D.C. neighborhoods about congressional antics often notes the racial disparity between the Tea Party allies and the people of the District. So I asked Norton if she saw a racial angle to the wrangling.

“Today, I think it would be a mistake to ascribe what has happened to us to race,” Norton said. There’s no evidence of that. If you look at what the evidence is, it seems to be that, lacking any other way to express their views [in law], they come to the one vehicle they believe can allow them to do that.”

She noted that when Democrats held sway post-Reconstruction and the District population comprised a white majority, Congress maintained tight control over the District. It wasn’t until D.C. was a majority African-American town, she added, that it finally achieved a measure of home rule during the Civil Rights era, thanks to African American activists who marched in the streets for their rights.

To point to race as a motivation for attempts by the right-wing Congress to implement its ideology on the District, Norton said, would be to “let them off the hook,” because there’s no evidence to back up the claim.

“We need to confront them where they are,” she said. “To do this to any district—a local district like their own—is anathema to a democratic republic.”