Update, January 28: HR 7 passed the House Tuesday evening 227 to 188.
Correction: A version of this article incorrectly noted that this week’s floor vote on HR 7 would take place Wednesday. In fact, it will take place on Tuesday. We regret the error.
With action yet to be taken on the long-delayed passage of an agriculture bill or the restoration of emergency unemployment insurance benefits to the 1.3 million out-of-work Americans who lost that lifeline in December, the Republican majority on the House Committee on Rules set the stage on Monday for a Tuesday floor vote on HR 7, a sweeping anti-choice bill packaged—deceptively, say opponents—as a piece of taxpayer-protection legislation.
In a play to the Republican base in an election year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) promised anti-choice activists at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on January 22 that he would schedule a vote on the bill as soon as possible. On Monday night, the Rules Committee met to put that vote in motion.
Sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), HR 7 would take the unprecedented step of using the tax code to penalize individuals and small businesses for purchasing health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act that include coverage for abortion services. It would also permanently prohibit the District of Columbia from using its locally generated tax revenue to provide abortion services to low-income women.
In her testimony on Monday, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, asserted that HR 7 is “an obvious step toward banning private health insurance coverage of key women’s health benefits.”
Further Than Hyde
Having dubbed HR 7 the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” Smith asserted that he simply sought to set into permanent law the provisions of the longstanding Hyde Amendment, which is attached as rider each year to the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services. The Hyde Amendment already prohibits any taxpayer funding of abortion, leading DeGette to state some four times in her testimony, “There is no taxpayer funding for abortion.”
But, said DeGette and other members of Congress—all Democrats—who testified against the bill, HR 7 goes much further than the Hyde Amendment, by prohibiting anyone who qualifies for a tax credit for purchase of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act from purchasing a plan that covers abortion without forfeiting the subsidy.
HR 7, said DeGette, “has nothing to do with taxpayers and everything to do with chipping away at a women’s full rights to reproductive health.”
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the ranking member on the Rules Committee who co-chairs the Pro-Choice Caucus with DeGette, directed her testimony at the Republican majority. “This doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Seventy percent of people in a new poll said, ‘For Heaven sakes, leave Roe v. Wade alone,’ but you just can’t do it.”
Slaughter also noted that the bill had no chance of passage in the Senate. “And once again the Rules Committee has come together to work on a piece of legislation that we know is going nowhere,” Slaughter said, citing the more than 40 times the House held votes last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The Rules Committee is chaired by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who said little during the committee meeting other than to express his support for “this important piece of legislation.”
Smith opened testimony on the bill complaining of the difficulty in discerning which insurance plans sold on the health-care exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act cover abortion services. Whether a plan covers abortion “ought to be told in bright neon lights” on an exchange website, Smith said. Of the 31 plans offered on the health insurance exchange in his own State of New Jersey, Smith said, “14 cover abortion on demand.”
Out of Order
Democrats appearing before the committee noted that the procedures by which the bill was being brought to the floor appeared to be out of order. Between Monday’s proceedings in the Rules Committee and the time at which HR 7 was passed by the Judiciary Committee on January 15, some provisions in the bill had changed, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), without explanation or a committee vote.
Gone was the provision passed in the version passed by the Judiciary Committee that would have prohibited the use for abortion of the pre-tax dollars in health savings accounts (HSAs), which are special accounts used for health-care expenses. Also removed was a provision that would have prohibited the deduction of the cost of an abortion as a medical expense on one’s tax return. However, the bill now contained a false assertion, Nadler said, that consumers had to pay a special surcharge for abortion coverage purchased through the exchanges.
“We have no idea who made these changes … or why they were made, but they demonstrate the fiction and hypocrisy that underlies the bill,” Nadler said.
Nadler also questioned the bill’s definition of tax credits as government spending, saying that it set forth a new legal principle, and one that could threaten the tax exemptions of religious denominations and houses of worship. If those exemptions were defined as government spending, Nadler said, they would be in violation of the First Amendment.
Slaughter and other Democrats objected to the Republicans’ intention to bring the bill to a vote under what is known as a “closed rule,” meaning there would be no opportunity to offer amendments.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, seemed to suggest the closed rule was payback for the manner in which the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2009.
HR 7, Goodlatte said, is an 11-page bill, and the Affordable Care Act was a 2,500-page bill, he added. “No amendments were allowed on that when it was brought to the House floor.”
“I Hope I Offended Someone”
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) characterized Smith’s bill as an attempt to roll back Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
“Roe v. Wade was forward-leaning, and HR 7 is backward-leaning,” Hastings said. “For a variety of reasons, some 41 years later, some choose to continue the divisiveness that the issue at hand causes. More than six times in this committee I’ve related that when I was in college, three women had botched abortions, and one with a coat hanger. And those deaths of those three college students that I went to school with sear in my memory every time we bring this subject up.”
But Hastings wasn’t finished. “I know we’ve all heard of Gov. Huckabee’s unfortunate articulations as they pertain to women,” he continued. “I take note of the fact that the whole Republican membership of the Judiciary Committee is male, and … I think men ought to butt out of this subject and be about the business of respecting women and their rights … I hope I’ve offended somebody, because I intended to.”
Toward the end of the hearing, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.) testified before the Rules Committee, having been denied the opportunity to do so before the Judiciary Committee, even though the bill contains a provision particular to her district and no other.
“[HR 7] targets my district, as a district, and insults us by having the audacity to say how we should spend money that you had nothing to do with,” Norton said. “And then, while this bill surely targets women across the United States, it reaches in to target the low-income residents of the District of Columbia.”
She noted that, in the 19th century, residents of Washington, D.C., had home rule, but that it ended when Reconstruction did (with the ushering in of the Jim Crow era).
The way in which HR 7 exercises its prohibition on the District of Columbia’s use of its own tax dollars for abortion care, Norton said, is to redefine D.C. “as a federal jurisdiction for purposes of abortion.”
“How can you redefine who we are?” she asked the committee’s Republicans. “Who do you think you are?”
Her question went unanswered.