A Short Sad History of Congress Trading D.C.'s Rights Away

Congress is poised to interfere with the District's popular marijuana referendum. It's an all too familiar story.

"John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it," President Obama was quoted as telling House Speaker John Boehner during budget negotiations in 2011. Now, just three years later, D.C. rights are on the bargaining block again.

Embedded within the spending bill known as the "CRomnibus" is a provision hampering the District's efforts to legalize recreational marijuana—a referendum that passed in the 2014 midterm elections with the support of nearly 70 percent of District voters. Still, this is far from the first time Congress has meddled with D.C.'s sovereignty.

The more than 600,000 residents in the District still have no voting representation in Congress, despite the fact that D.C. has a greater population than Wyoming or Vermont. And local residents' interests are frequently used as leverage in larger congressional negotiations. (For a sense of how racially charged this is, consider the fact that roughly half of the District's population is black, while Congress is 87 percent white.)

What follows is a look back at the many times Congress has trampled on D.C. rights.

  1. Marijuana legalization: The 2014 spending bill would gut a referendum to legalize marijuana in D.C., despite its winning overwhelming support from D.C. residents. While the precise meaning of the language currently included in the omnibus is still being debated, the marijuana rider would prohibit the taxation and regulation of cannabis, an integral part of reformers' vision for racial justice.
  2. Abortion rights: In 2011, House Republicans—who had been pressing for federal funding restrictions on Planned Parenthood—instead accepted a counteroffer barring D.C. from using its own local tax money to give low-income women access to abortions through Medicaid. The ban remains in place.
  3. Marriage equality: From 1992 until 2002, Congress prevented D.C. from spending its own funds to implement the Health Care Benefits Expansion Act, which would have afforded more rights to domestic partners.
  4. HIV prevention: From 1999 to 2007, Congress prevented D.C. from using its own funds to pay for local syringe-access programs scientifically proven to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDs, even as D.C.'s HIV/AIDS diagnosis rate soared to the highest in the country.
  5. Voting rights: In 2007 and 2009, Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s nonvoting delegate to the House since 1990, came close to securing voting representation in Congress through the DC House Voting Rights Act. The effort broke down after Republicans introduced an amendment to the bill that would have nullified District gun-control laws.
  6. Gun control: Congress has for years sought to gut D.C.'s gun laws, as in 2009 when such measures were used to derail DC's push for statehood. This despite a federal court ruling that D.C.'s laws comply with the Supreme Court's Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008, which protects an individual's right to possess firearms for self-defense purposes.
  7. Medical marijuana: In 1998, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., successfully blocked a District medical-marijuana measure known as Initiative 59. A rider he attached to the 1999 omnibus spending bill also prohibited the vote tally from being publicly released. The restriction would not be lifted until 2010.

This circular nature of Congress bargaining D.C.'s rights away isn't likely to change any time soon.