It was a warm spring afternoon a year ago today when Mayor Vince Gray, D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown, five councilmembers, and close to three-dozen residents marched onto Constitution Avenue on Capitol Hill and sat down, refusing to move even as police threatened to arrest them. Forty-one people were eventually locked up that afternoon as part of a D.C. voting rights protest that galvanized a movement that knew struggle and defeat all too well.
But much as the broader fight for D.C. voting rights, self-determination and statehood, the arrest of the 41-not to mention the arrests of more than 30 others at separate protests over the subsequent months-has yielded uneven results for the cause that they advocated. Spurred to civil disobedience by a federal budget deal between President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner that used local abortion funding as a bargaining chip, the 365 days that have elapsed since the arrests have seen only plodding progress towards the goal of legislative and budgetary autonomy. But in this day and age, any progress in D.C. voting rights-no matter how incremental-is progress no less.
To be clear: D.C. has no more nor no less autonomy than it did on April 11, 2011. The city’s budget still has to be approved by Congress, as do any laws that the D.C. Council passes. Members of Congress regularly use that District to score points on hot-button social issues-local abortion funding is always in play and Congress has made it something of an annual tradition to try and gut the city’s gun laws or impose draconian new laws that wouldn’t otherwise fly in the home states of those proposing them.
The conversation has moved along, though. A month after the arrests, Gray, Brown and D.C. CFO Natwar Gandhi appeared at a hearing on the Hill, where they pleaded to members of Congress to let them spend the city’s money when and how they saw fit. Much to everyone’s surprise, they found a sympathetic ear in Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who said he would be amenable to giving D.C. more flexibility in governing itself.
It wasn’t until November when Issa fleshed out his proposal more fully: yes, D.C. would be able spend its money without congressional approval, but it would still be forbidden from spending any local funds to pay for abortions. It was a titillating trade-off, but one that Gray and Brown eventually rejected. “Our opposition to the provision to permanently prohibit the District from spending its local funds on abortion services for low-income women is as strong as the views of those outside our city who support it,” they said in a statement.
That hasn’t been the end of Issa’s proposal, though. In fact, he’s picked up support from two prominent Republicans-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. President Obama pledged his support for D.C. budget autonomy, but has stayed quiet on the abortion question.
That’s left Gray, Brown, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and other city leaders in the unenviable provision of again choosing between what they want and what they can get. Is abortion worth sacrificing budget autonomy for? If it isn’t, is anything? That’s not an easy question, nor is it one that hasn’t come up before-Norton could have gained a voting seat in the House a few years ago had D.C. agreed to do away with its gun laws.
In the meantime, Gray may be trying to pull a fast one on Congress. As the Washington Times reported yesterday, as part of his 2013 budget Gray has simply said that the city will choose its own fiscal year-it currently has to follow the congressional schedule-and will decide whether or not to abide by federal spending mandates. It’s a smart move-instead of asking Congress for budget autonomy, Gray is taking it and forcing Congress to tell him he can’t.
It remains to be seen how Gray’s ploy pans out, but the year since the arrests have proven that focusing on the narrower issue of budget autonomy has yielded more progress-albeit only partially-than the usual demands for statehood. But as with other debates before this one, Gray and other city leaders may be forced to decide how much, if at all, they’re willing to compromise. Is giving up abortion funding worth the larger win of being able spend the city’s money freely?
Getting arrested was easy. Answering that question won’t be.
If you get a chance, do read the Washingtonian’s long take on DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka, which is online here.