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D.C. Politics

With Obama leaving, congressional Republicans move to gut D.C. laws

Congressional Republicans are making an aggressive push to gut the District’s progressive policies, introducing bills in recent days to repeal the heavily Democratic city’s gun-control measures, undo its new law allowing physician-assisted suicide and ban the District from using local tax dollars to provide abortions for poor women.

The bills have begun arriving on the eve of President Obama’s departure from the White House, where he has stifled repeated attempts to pass similar measures with a veto threat.

Those decisions will soon be in the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, and conservative House members said they think that Trump will not impede the will of a newly emboldened ­Republican-led Congress.

“I believe we have a White House and a Congress that see things increasingly similarly — there has been a decided trend line in favor of life,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who introduced the bill to permanently ban the District from using local tax money to subsidize abortions for low-income residents.

On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), reintroduced a bill to repeal the District’s gun-control laws, which are among the most restrictive in the nation. Under one provision in Rubio’s bill, police in the nation’s capital would have to drop tight controls on who is allowed to carry a gun outside a home. Instead, the city would be compelled to issue concealed-carry permits to any resident or visitor who meets the most basic criteria.

D.C.'s gun control laws are under challenge again

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In 2008, D.C.'s ban on handguns was struck down by the Supreme Court after more than 30 years. The city's gun control laws are under challenge again. This is a look back at D.C.'s tough history on gun ownership. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

The back-to-back bills came after Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) vowed last week to use his perch atop the House Oversight Committee to roll back the law making the District the seventh jurisdiction to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.

The District’s status as a federal district makes it uniquely vulnerable to the whims of Congress. Unlike in the 50 states, Congress has supreme authority, including veto power over local laws and voter-approved measures. It can even reach in and dictate how local tax money is spent if the president agrees.

More people live in the nation’s capital than in Vermont or Wyoming, and they pay more in federal taxes than their counterparts in 22 states, but the federal district has no voting member of Congress.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) bristled Wednesday at the rapid-fire assault.

“Given that Russia interfered with a national election and millions of Americans are about to lose their health-care coverage, it boggles the mind why Republicans think interfering in our local government is the best use of their time,” Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris said.

Democrats have regularly accused Republicans of using their oversight to impose their ideological will — and to score points with their constituents back home.

“These officials should stop lording over the District of ­Columbia as if it were their private kingdom,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who vowed to fight each piece of GOP legislation aimed at the District. “It’s the height of arrogance to impose their view against the wishes of the people in the District.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who represents neighborhoods on Capitol Hill, said it was also ironic.

“These guys love to argue for local control and rail against big government, but they seem to love big government when it comes to imposing what they believe,” he said.

Unlike the previous instances in which Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress and the White House, there are fewer moderate Republicans to block bills targeting the District from reaching the president’s desk, said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

“The ideological pendulum is swinging further between administrations now than it did 20 years ago. When you go from one to the next, it’s whiplash,” he said. “It means that the perceived threat is real for D.C. leaders who fear politicians from thousands of miles away dictating what laws the District can and cannot pass,” Wasserman said.

Last week, Bowser hosted a cocktail reception for new members of Congress in an attempt to press her case for D.C. statehood — an effort that now looks fruitless.

“This is just the beginning of the assault I fear we will see on the District and home rule and 600,000 people who can’t vote,” Allen said.

Given other legislative priorities of the new Congress, action on the bills may not come quickly.

A vote to undo D.C. gun laws would represent the most sweeping policy intervention since 1973, when Congress allowed the city to begin electing a mayor and city council to govern local affairs.

The D.C. government maintained a total ban on firearm possession until recently, when gun rights groups won partial legal victories first to allow residents to maintain guns at home and then for some to carry them with permits.

Still, with support from D.C. leaders, city police have approved only a couple of dozen carry permits.

Under the legislation introduced by Rubio, District gun laws would be repealed and replaced with much looser federal laws. D.C. residents would be allowed to purchase guns in neighboring states, including Virginia, where purchasing requirements are among the nation’s most lenient.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading supporter of gun control in Congress, called Rubio’s idea “dangerous.”

“I can’t think of anything more dangerous than allowing people to walk around with assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the nation’s capital,” Murphy said. “This city is always a little bit on edge knowing it’s always at risk. Why raise the anxiety of people who live here by allowing dangerous killing machines to be legally sold and carried on streets?”

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the District-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, denounced Rubio’s bill, citing a rise in homicides in the city over the past two years.

Rubio’s bill would also strip the D.C. Council and mayor of their ability to pass future restrictions on gun rights.

Similarly, the antiabortion bill sponsored by Smith would make a more lasting change, requiring a vote by the House, a supermajority vote of the Senate and the president’s signature to undo it.

For decades, members of Congress have debated annually whether to prohibit the District from spending its local tax revenue — as 17 states now do — to subsidize abortions.

During Obama’s first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, the District used its local Medicaid contribution to pay for almost 120 abortions for low-income residents.

In 2011 in a low point for Obama’s relationship with D.C. residents, the president traded away the right for the District to continue funding those abortions to win a federal budget deal with Republicans. Then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) led a sit-in and was arrested for blocking traffic outside the Capitol.

The temporary ban has been continued in every budget deal since.

Smith’s bill aims to make it more difficult for any future president to again allow abortion funding.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) plans to introduce the Senate companion to Smith’s bill, as he has done in previous years when the measure passed the House but did not get a vote in the Senate.

This time, things are different, Wicker said.

“We have a real chance for it to be enacted,” he said. “I think we have a president who would sign it. I think public opinion is behind us on this issue.”

But depending on how Republican leaders proceed, the measure may require a 60-vote majority in the Senate to become law, giving Democrats a chance to block it.

“We will fight them tooth and nail on these issues,” Van Hollen said. “There were lots of terrible ideas introduced in the past that went nowhere that now may have a chance to get farther along in the process. We’ll be fighting hard to block this effort to make the District of Columbia their personal plaything.”

More intervention by conservatives is on the way. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said he plans to use an appropriations bill to block the city from using funds to regulate recreational marijuana use, which voters approved through a 2014 ballot measure.

“The Constitution gives Congress the right — and obligation — to oversee everything that happens in the District,” he said.

 
Home Legislative Limitations Sen. Rubio wants to gut D.C. gun laws