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D.C. Leaders Ponder Next Steps to Win Statehood

WI Web Staff Report | 11/30/2011, 10:38 p.m.
While the world is glued to news of democracy protests in Cairo, the capitol of...
D.C. State Democratic Committee Chairwoman Anita Bonds says in 2012 she hopes to elect a majority in Congress willing to vote for a D.C. statehood bill and a President willing to sign it into law./Courtesy photo.

While the world is glued to news of democracy protests in Cairo, the capitol of Egypt, locally, leaders are debating their next moves to win full democracy for residents of this country's capital, the District of Columbia.

This debate comes on the heels of a recent proposal that would have provided the District with increased control over its own finances. Yet, due to a condition they believed was unacceptable, an offer of budget autonomy was rejected by the District's top politicos, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Vincent C. Gray, and Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown.

The Offer

Republicans controlling the U.S. House of Representatives drafted legislation that would do away with the federal government's annual review of the D.C. budget. Since this process is linked to the federal government's own budget approval, the District's finances have often been held hostage during periodic political tugs of war between Congress and the president. This has forced the D.C. government to shut down, on at least one occasion, bringing a halt to trash collection and other local services.

The Catch

In return for "budget autonomy," D.C. would have been permanently barred from funding elective abortions (performed for non-medical reasons) for low-income women. Currently, the District government is banned from funding elective abortions through the remainder of FY 2011.

According to the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance, elective abortions are relatively a minor expense in the agency's billion dollar-plus budget. Per District figures, only $65,000 have been spent on these procedures since D.C. begin funding elective abortions from its own local finances. However, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, the District's funding of abortions became a prized target for conservatives looking to score points with their tea-party supporters who swept them into power.

In April, Republicans made the District's abortion funding a negotiating point in the debate over a federal spending package for FY 2011. To avert a government shutdown, the president himself is quoted to have told Republicans that "I will give you D.C. abortion," thus barring the District from funding abortions for the rest of 2011. News of this compromise sparked outrage amongst D.C. rights activists and politicians, leading to the arrest of the Mayor and other District rights supporters, 72 in all.

Following the national attention generated by the arrests of the Mayor and others, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House panel charged with overseeing the District's affairs, proposed the budget autonomy deal to make the abortion ban permanent. The bill would have saved anti-abortion forces from having to renew the ban annually.

The Civics Lesson

Someone new to the District might be confused why the federal government is responsible for local public health priorities such as abortion services.

The issue boils down to statehood, or the lack thereof says Anise Jenkins, president of Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. "So long as D.C. is denied full statehood, we will continue to be faced with games that offer to give us one right and take another away" says Jenkins. As one of the 72 D.C. rights activists arrested earlier this year, and the only activist cleared of all charges stemming from their acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, Jenkins believes that going forward, leaders in D.C. must not settle for anything short of full statehood. And Jenkins points out that the blueprint for winning statehood is available for all to read in the reserves of the Martin Luther King Branch of the D.C. Library. This blueprint spells out a simple formula of "education, citizen participation and direct action, litigation, and legislation," says Jenkins.