When the Elephants Come Marching In

Not long into George W. Bush's second term, Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla introduced a measure to rename D.C.'s 16th Street -- a major north-south thoroughfare -- "Ronald Reagan Boulevard." Luckily for the heavily Democratic District, even Bonilla's fellow Republicans scoffed at the idea. As one noted, Reagan already has the airport; if Bonilla wants to name anything else after Reagan, "he has to look at his own district in San Antonio."

Bonilla's proposal is emblematic of larger ways changes in federal leadership directly affect the nation's capital. Under the Constitution, Congress has the final say on Washington's laws and budget, giving federal legislators the ability to meddle in local affairs. Most proposals of Bonilla's caliber don't catch on. But when it comes to important social policy, congressional rule -- especially under Republicans -- disrupts the ability of the city government to address local problems.

Generally, Democratic congresses tend to give D.C. autonomy over its own affairs, while Republican ones use their authority over the city to champion conservative causes. D.C. Shadow Rep. Mike Panetta -- who holds a symbolic office that is not recognized by the federal government -- describes D.C. as a sort of petri dish for mostly conservative policies that are difficult to implement elsewhere. When Republicans took both houses of Congress in 1994, they blocked local spending on such hot-button initiatives as abortion services, what Panetta calls the "bright, shiny objects" Republicans can't keep their hands off of. In 1998, they went so far as to prohibit the city from counting votes on a referendum to legalize medical marijuana. When Democrats won back both houses in 2006, the pendulum swung the other way: D.C. finally legalized medicinal marijuana in 2009 as well as same-sex marriage in 2010 and revived social programs that had been shut down in the 1990s.

Now, with Republicans slated to take over the House, the city's respite from a conservative majority is over.

One perennial Republican target is reproductive freedom. Under the Hyde Amendment, states bear the responsibility for helping low-income women, mostly through Medicaid, pay for abortions. In 1995, however, D.C.'s right to use local revenue to fund abortions was taken away, effectively limiting abortion access for the District's poor African American and Hispanic women. Democrats finally lifted the ban in December 2009.

Even though the city has officially been funding selective abortions, D.C. Medicaid has not yet paid for a single one. Tiffany Reed, president of DC Abortion Funds (DCAF), a nonprofit that provides grants to women in the D.C. area to pay for abortions, has seen the number of requests to DCAF rise each year but continued hoping the city would begin providing much-needed funding. Now, the new Congress could change things yet again. "We were nervous after the elections," Reed admits, that after a year of waiting, "funding could be taken away before it's even started."

Congressional Republicans have also continually turned a blind eye to the AIDS crisis in the District, using "war on drugs" rhetoric rather than allowing D.C. to fight the disease. D.C. is the HIV capital of the country, where an estimated one in 20 residents has HIV or AIDS. Yet in 1998, when statistics showed 37 percent of infections were caused by intravenous drug use, the Republican-led Congress banned the District from providing local funding to needle-exchange programs. Ten years later, after Democrats had regained the majority, Congress lifted the ban, and the District began funding the exchanges again, though for the past two years, Republicans have been pushing bans on funding needle exchanges less than 1,000 feet from any school, park, or place children might gather. (In the densely populated capital, that would basically force the exchanges onto boats on the Potomac River.)

Other Republican policies have survived the back-and-forth transfers of power. For years, D.C.'s school system has been one of the lowest-performing in the country. In 1995, as Dave Weigel detailed in October in the Washington City Paper, incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich saw the District as the perfect laboratory for school vouchers. Eventually, Congress established the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a small measure with ambiguous results. While some in D.C. supported the program, it served more as a conservative rallying cry than as an actual policy solution to the District's failing schools.

Instead, in the last three years, city leadership has moved aggressively on its own to improve the education system. The Obama administration, which has embraced such reforms as charter schools and teacher accountability, ended the D.C. voucher program and this year awarded the District federal grant money for its educational-reform achievements.

Robert Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan think tank Education Sector, sees the next few years -- "the implementation phase" of these policies -- as crucial to reform's success. He cautions that with tight budgets, reinstating old solutions such as vouchers could compromise current reform efforts. Vouchers are the GOP's go-to fix for education, adds Erin Dillon, also of Education Sector. For Republicans, the D.C. voucher system was a "symbolic win"; bringing the program back to the District -- where Republican interference is all about building conservative credentials -- would be a charged, symbolic battle. Manwaring, though, thinks it's unlikely that the voucher program could ultimately be revived while the Senate is still held by Democrats.

Washingtonians aren't quite as helpless as they were in the 1990s, notes Ilir Zherka, president of the advocacy group D.C. Vote. With a Democratic majority in the Senate, it is unlikely that many House amendments will make it into final legislation. And local rule is something Tea Party Republicans support, at least on the surface. "If there's a message from the 2010 elections," Zherka says, "it's that we don't want government imposing" in local affairs. Nevertheless, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, incoming chair of the House subcommittee that oversees the District, has demonstrated that he has no problem interfering in District business. When it comes to local policy such as education, Chaffetz has been clear that local autonomy is "not in the Constitution"; Panetta told the City Paper before the midterms that Chaffetz was a "meddler who does not let local decisions stand."

Even if some progressive programs survive the next few years unscathed, District residents always seem to be on an election roller coaster over which they have no control. The fix for the uncertainty is statehood, Panetta says, because "any legislative patch is only as good as Congress or the president happens to be." D.C.'s one real voice in national politics, besides residents' ability to vote for president, is largely symbolic: When Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was elected D.C.'s nonvoting rep in 1992, she convinced leadership to grant her a vote in committee, just not on a law's final passage. (Her right to vote has also been a victim of pendulum swings: Gingrich stripped it in 1994, it was reinstated in 2007, and it will probably disappear again in January.)

Of course, uncertainty is just one part of the problem. Panetta and Zherka talk about the fight for D.C. "home rule" as a long-term, civil-rights struggle. D.C.'s lack of local autonomy means District residents -- mostly poor minorities -- see their quality of life substantially affected by the whims of Congressmen beholden to entirely separate parts of the country. If Washingtonians don't want 16th Street named after Reagan or George W. Bush, they just have to hope and pray it doesn't happen.

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