Take last year's budget stand-off between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner, who eked out a compromise hours before a government shutdown. One of the primary logjams was abortion, and not just funding for Planned Parenthood. Boehner wanted to revive a longstanding rider that barred D.C. from using local Medicaid funds to pay for abortions. Obama had managed to strip this restriction from the budget in 2009, when he had a Democratic Congress at his back, but Boehner's delegation had made reinstituting the rider a top priority for their first year in office. According to the Washington Post, Obama refused to cave on Planned Parenthood but eventually told Boehner, "John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it." This concession secured a deal, though it enraged District residents. Mayor Vincent Gray was one of a group of city officials arrested several days later for protesting the rider outside the Capitol.
The victory emboldened abortion opponents, and in January of this year, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) introduced the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) declared its top legislative priority for 2012. While most states restrict later-term abortions, the standard threshold has hinged on when a fetus can survive outside the womb -- a decision made on a case-by-case basis but generally beginning around 24 weeks. Starting in 2010, the NRLC launched a state-by-state campaign to drop this threshold to 20 weeks by shifting the conversation from viability to when a fetus begins to feel pain.
While mainstream medical organizations peg this development to 24 weeks or later, after nerve functions are in place, the NRLC argues that it occurs a full month earlier. Over the past two years, the "fetal-pain" strategy has secured 20-week bans in seven states, with more likely to follow suit. The D.C. proposal, which lacks an exception for rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, and the mother's health, is one of the more extreme versions.
In a divided Congress, D.C. spending can turn into a bargaining chip, subject to partisan fluctuations and last-minute, high-stakes deals.
Franks held a hearing on the bill last week, at which he came under fire for denying D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton a chance to testify. In a statement, Norton pointed out the irony of small-government Republicans inflating a local issue into a federal one: "[Franks and his co-sponsors] violated one of their most sacrosanct principles -- that the reach of the federal government must be contained -- by trying to move the federal government into the last place the founders would have sanctioned -- local government decisions."
Abortion is not the only local issue Congress has intervened on. Ilir Zherka, executive director of statehood advocacy group DC Vote, sees the District as a sort of experimental staging ground for budding social conservative campaigns. "Whether it's marriage equality, guns, medical marijuana, abortion, or needle exchange programs," Zherka says, "a bunch of issues get played out here, because national conservative groups use the District either as a launching pad for their next social battle or as a punching bag, to make rhetorical points."