Mayor Vincent Gray and several Council members were arrested yesterday evening while protesting the budget deal on Capitol Hill. The deal struck between Republicans and the White House used D.C. as a bargaining chip, including a provision blocking D.C. from putting local funds toward abortions for low-income women. “John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it,” Obama reportedly said in negotiations.
Gray’s arrest may be partly a stunt to raise his approval ratings, but it gets at a deep injustice. There’s a perverse logic to sacrificing some low-income women for the well-being of other low-income women (the deal likely saved Planned Parenthood and Title X funding). After the deal was announced, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton suggested that D.C. statehood was an unrealistic goal at the moment and that the city should focus on ensuring autonomous “home rule” instead; similarly, the Washington City Paper’s Mike Maddon tweeted after Gray’s arrest, “I'd probably take budget autonomy without the vote over the vote without budget autonomy.”
But D.C. is a pawn in political negotiations because it isn’t a state and doesn’t have two senators. And one of the reasons D.C. isn’t a state is because a large enough coalition of Republicans and some Democrats would rather have D.C. remain under federal control so that they can impose their particular agenda on the city, not to mention it’s heavily Democratic. Even though Democratic congresses generally allow the D.C. City Council authority over local spending, that authority is whisked away when Republicans come into power and nothing short of a constitutional amendment can change that permanently.
It seems obvious that in a representative democracy, those without a (voting) representative will probably see their will ignored. Statehood and full-representation sound like much more demanding, impossible goals, but it’s hard to see why D.C. would get complete home rule without it being politically expedient. As it stands now, Obama saved important policies for all women on the backs of a few women, and it won’t cost him anything; Republicans can brag about an anti-abortion victory to their base. Folks who want budget autonomy should be thinking bigger right now. Here’s one amusing idea.