What D.C. Deserves Gets In the Way of What It Can Get
||Friday, November 18, 2011
Yesterday, Mayor Vince Gray, D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton turned down an offer from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) for increased budget autonomy, an issue that has long been a demand of elected officials and D.C. voting rights activists alike. According to a joint statement released by the trio, an attached condition that the District agree to stop spending any of its money on funding abortions for low-income women was too much to bear, even if increased control over city finances was on the table.
This certainly isn't the first time that a step forward in the District's longstanding fight for voting rights, self-determination and statehood has been accompanied by a somewhat noxious compromise. It was only a few years ago, after all, that Norton could have become a full voting member of the House had the city agreed to give up any control over its gun laws.
According to the AP, the District's fight for what it deserves is frustrating those that think it should just settle for what it can get:
Former Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican and an advocate for district self-rule, said the rejection of Issa’s bill was reminiscent of the 2009 effort to give the district a voting representative in Congress, which fizzled after conservative senators added an amendment that would have struck down the district’s tough gun control laws.
In both cases, Davis said, district leaders were “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
“They need to learn to take some victories. I think the budget autonomy is critical. The reality is, with this Congress, that’s the best they’re going to do,” said Davis, who occasionally advises Gray on how to deal with Congress. “I understand the difficulty — I get it. But leadership is not always having perfect choices.”
This conflict between idealists and pragmatists certainly isn't new. For idealists, nothing short of statehood will work. They're not necessarily wrong -- the principles upon which this country was founded have been violated in the District for over two centuries, and only that 51st star could adequately remedy them. The pragmatists, on the other hand, point out what they claim is obvious -- statehood won't happen, so District residents should be content with even baby steps forward or a larger compromise, like retrocession to Maryland or an exemption from federal taxes, Puerto Rico-style. (In the early 1990s, the D.C. Council passed legislation asking Congress to spare residents federal taxes until full representation could be achieved.)
When I asked Gray and Brown about this yesterday at Gray's bi-weekly press briefing, both admitted that they were torn -- Gray called it an "agonizing decision." Ultimately, though, they said what pushed them to come out against it was the fact that under the deal, the ban on the use of local funds for abortions would be written into the Home Rule Charter.
To date, every ban has been attached as a rider to the city's annual budget, and has been subject to the whims of the party that controls the House. When the Republicans are in power, the ban is imposed; if it's Democrats, they tend to do away with it. Under Issa's compromise, the ban would be much more permanent. Yes, the Home Rule Charter can be amended, but it's a more time-consuming process than adding or removing budget riders. For Gray, Brown and Norton, this fact alone pushed the bounds of pragmatism too far. (They also worried that other Republican riders could be worked into the Home Rule Charter as amendments to Issa's bill.)
This impasse may not be the end of the issue, though. Both Gray and Issa have publicly said nice things about each other. And as the City Paper reports, Gray recently met in private with Issa and Rep. Jo-Ann Emerson (R-MO) to discuss the matter. Who knows -- there still might be a compromise Gray, Brown and Norton are able to live with.
Or, as Roll Call reports today, Issa could just as well introduce the measure without their support. At a hearing today, Issa indicated that he's still willing to move the measure forward, but he also admitted that other Republicans were looking to add riders on to his bill.
And then this, courtesy of the Post's Ben Pershing: "D.C. has had reasonable autonomy in most areas with the exception of spending its own money," said Issa. Well, yeah, except for the fact that the autonomy we have is contingent on Congress not doing anything. That's an oddly conditional form or autonomy, isn't it?
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