Throwing D.C. Under the Bus

Like the battle over slavery, Congress is using Washington, D.C., in a proxy war over morality -- with far scarier results.


The White House is still dealing with the fallout from congressional budget negotiations that barely averted a government shutdown: angry progressives speaking out around the country, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray getting arrested during protests, and hundreds of thousands of Washington, D.C., residents feeling the sting of political betrayal.

In order to end the budget stalemate, President Obama allowed a provision that banned D.C. from using its own funds to help poor women access abortion. "John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it," Obama reportedly said to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the Oval Office.

Days later, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was still trying to smooth things over. "The president is a firm supporter of D.C. home rule and continues to be that," he told the Washington Post. "The choices that had to be made in this negotiation were not easy ones."

D.C. has a quirky governance structure: It is not a state and has no voting representation in Congress. Although the city was granted "home rule" in 1973, Congress also has final approval over the District's budget and the laws passed by its residents, making the city less a democracy and more of a colony, legally speaking. This is why our license plates read, "Taxation Without Representation."

As a result, D.C. and Capitol Hill have long had a paternalistic, sometimes abusive relationship. A random senator from state X doesn't score many political points back home for manipulating the lives of poor -- mostly black -- women and children in the District, but there is a reason Congress likes to stick its finger in the D.C. pot on controversial social issues.

Whether it has been the abolition of slavery, integration of public schools, education reform or, now, abortion -- what happens to D.C. rarely stays in D.C. So if you are a progressive, the women and children of D.C. getting thrown under the proverbial bus is a very ominous sign.

This isn't the first time that Congress has used Washington, D.C., to wage a proxy war over contentious social issues. For years, the fact that slavery was legal in the city angered many Northern abolitionist members of Congress, according to the book Secret City. They submitted so many bills on the topic that in 1836, Congress imposed an eight-year moratorium against introducing the topic of slavery in the District.

Congress would later pass a law -- nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation applied to the rest of the United States -- resolving to pay $300 in federal money to District slaveholders to buy the freedom of each slave. In 1866, Congress gave black men the right to vote in the District. Twelve years later, black men had the right to vote everywhere else. And so on.

In the most recent budget battle, a lot of attention has rightly been paid to the battle over D.C. abortion and Planned Parenthood in general. It is surreal and outrageous that two men sitting in the Oval Office can control how my tax dollars may be spent on my body. But the other budget concession rider, providing private school funding for some residents of the District, also shows the big, clumsy foot of Congress in the lives of D.C. residents.

The agreement requires the District to continue a program that pays private school tuition for some children. I will not deconstruct the merits and demerits of this particular policy here, beyond pointing out that many of the District's democratically elected leaders oppose the program.