More than five hundred Washington, D.C. residents and local lawmakers rallied in opposition to federal interference in local District legislation as the House of Representative’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued a formal markup of disapproval of D.C. legislation.
With the formal disapproval, which occurred as the Hands Off D.C. rally was happening, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee took the first step toward nullifying Washington, D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act. The markup of disapproval is the fourth time Congress has voted down a D.C. law since the passing of the 1973 Home Rule Act.
The Death with Dignity Act, initially proposed by D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) in January 2015 and signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) in December 2016, would allow physicians to prescribe fatal medication to terminally ill patients.
The full House of Representatives and the Senate have until Friday, when the 30-day window for Congress to stop District legislation closes, to vote to block the law.
The rally, which took place at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, was the first gathering organized by Hands Off D.C., a coalition of advocates for increased D.C. independence that prepares D.C. leaders to resist federal plans intervening in District affairs.
Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) organized the Hands Off D.C. rally before the vote took place to assert the belief that the District’s citizens and government should retain the right to make their own laws without interference from the federal government.
The Constitution gives Congress the ability to overturn District laws, but they must acquire passage by both the House and the Senate as well as the president’s signature. On Jan. 24, the House of Representatives also voted 238-183 in favor of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2017, which officially prohibited local D.C. tax dollars from funding abortion services, except in the case of sexual assault, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother.
Addressing a crowd of organizers at the Spirit of Justice Park, Bowser voiced her support for the movement, saying that her signature on legislation passed by the D.C. local government should be the final say.
“This Council of the District of Columbia has been duly elected by the people of the District of Columbia, and this council of the District of Columbia passes the laws for us,” Bowser said. “When I put my ‘John Hancock’ on that law, it should be the law of the land.”
Later in the evening, Hands Off D.C. advocates, led by Allen, overflowed the 320-seat Atlas Theater.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has been a vocal opponent of the assisted suicide bill. Last week, Chaffetz published an op-ed in The Washington Post describing his moral opposition to the bill and also expressed concerns over the bill’s lack of regulation during the markup.
Chaffetz said during the session Monday night that the bill does not specifically define what qualifies as a terminal illness and does not prohibit insurance companies from funding physician-assisted suicide instead of surgeries or treatment.
“Far too many of its ‘safeguards’ appear to be little more than a facade of protection, rather than actual measures to combat abuse and misuse. The act places individuals in a situation ripe for coercion and misuse and mistakes,” Chaffetz said. “We should be doing everything in our power as legislators to help prevent suicide, not encourage it.”
Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the resolution negates the will of District residents and violates the Home Rule Act of 1973, which grants the District the power to elect its own city council and pass legislation.
Cummings brought up the fact that D.C. has no voting members in Congress. The District has two shadow Senators, as well as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.
“With the exception of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who does a phenomenal job, none of us were elected by the D.C. voters,” Cummings said during the session. “None of us served in the D.C. City Council, where the Death with Dignity Act was approved by a vote of 11-2. None of the members of this committee would stand for congressional interference in their own state and local affairs, and none of us should stand for it in this case.”
Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) also said he was morally opposed to the bill, which he compared to the euthanasia of Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust.
“America, wake up. Wake up. No matter how frayed the fabric of our conscience, we must hold it together to stand against this civilized, organized effort of barbarity veneered as consent, dignity and duly passed law,” Russell said during the session. “I will speak up. We must wake up. We cannot allow the legalization of a system of expanding murder-suicide pacts.”
Norton responded to Russell, stating that the resolution was hypocritical in light of the Republican Party’s typical dedication to limiting the size of government and federal intervention into state affairs.
“The District of Columbia and its residents are accountable only to local officials just as yours are, Mr. Russell,” Norton said during the session. “This markup shows contempt for democracy and flies in the face of what we had always thought to be bedrock Republican principles that we hear on the floor every day: limited government and local control of local affairs.”
Georgetown Students for D.C. Statehood Vice President Maddy Taub (COL ’18) said that as a D.C. citizen, she sees the resolution as a violation of the rights of District residents.
“D.C. citizens have no vote in Congress even though they pay federal taxes,” Taub said. “When the majority of D.C. citizens vote for a law, Congress can immediately intervene despite the wishes of D.C. citizens.”
Georgetown Students for D.C. Statehood member Dylan Hughes (COL ’19) said he was surprised to see Chaffetz’s opposition to the bill after the demonstrations at a recent town hall in Utah, which saw constituents demanding he address more local issues.
“It’s funny that Chaffetz wants to overrule the will of voters of the District, while just having been chewed out by his own constituents for refusing to listen and act on their own concerns,” Hughes said. “Chaffetz should tend to his own business as representative from Utah and chair of the Government Oversight Committee before meddling in the local affairs of the District.”
Bowser expressed disappointment at Congress’ decision in a statement released Monday evening.
“I am disappointed at the egregious action taken by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today,” the statement reads. “In passing H.R. 27, the House Oversight Committee, led by Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, has sent a signal to DC residents that Congress has zero respect of concern for their will or the will of their elected officials.”
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