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Understanding the Place of the District of Columbia in Our Structure

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Ms. NORTON. Mr. Speaker, I come to the floor this afternoon as part of my series of talks designed to help Members of the House and Senate understand the place of the District of Columbia in our structure. It is an anomalous place. And when Members come to the House of Representatives, they must find it very peculiar that anything having to do with a local jurisdiction comes here at all.

The most important thing to remember as I speak this afternoon is that that anomaly got to be too much for the Congress, and 39 years ago the Congress sent back to the District the power to legislate for the District of Columbia. So if you hear Members say Congress can legislate for the District of Columbia, you must point them to the Home Rule Act of 1973.

It is true that on some matters the District cannot legislate for itself. Those matters involve things like imposing a commuter tax or changing the limits on how high buildings can be in the District, because we don't want to obscure the great monuments. But I assure you that the enumerated congressional powers over the District are quite small, and that none of what I have to say this afternoon is among those areas where Congress has said, only Congress itself should be able to legislate.

Yet my good friends on the other side insist upon imposing their own views on the District of Columbia quite undemocratically against our will. Even if you assumed that Congress could enact laws for the District of Columbia, no one would assume that Congress could--without any democratic accountability--enact laws that went counter to the laws the District had enacted.

Where are the small-government Tea Party members, the ones who are trying to teach the House of Representatives a lesson about pulling back even from Federal matters? You cross the line very seriously when you involve yourself in local matters where you yourself cannot be held accountable. Do you believe in democracy or not? It seems to me that the entire notion of passing a law and imposing it on people who have no say about it is a kind of authoritarianism that we ourselves criticize on this floor every single day in one fashion or another.

Twice this week, Republican Members disregarded their own basic principles and sought to interfere with the local government of the District of Columbia and its citizens against their will in the most undemocratic fashion. There was no respect for democracy, no respect for federalism, no respect for their own principles. They moved forward to say that this was the way we would like it, no matter what you would like.

As you might expect, we took exception. I am very pleased with the outpouring of support we have received from all over the country regarding the way the District was treated in the attempt by Representative Trent Franks to impose his views on reproductive choice for the women and physicians of the District of Columbia. And I appreciate the support I have received when many were shocked that I was not granted the courtesy of testifying at his hearing on his bill, which affects only my district.

Let me say a word about that bill. Representative Trent Franks is from Arizona. The sponsor of this same bill in the Senate--a bill to impose a 20-week limit on abortions for women in the District of Columbia--is from at least as far away, Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

Senator Lee had hardly hit the ground--I think had filed all of nine bills when he filed a bill that would impose a 20-week limit on abortions in the District of Columbia. Not on Utah, but on the District of Columbia. Representative Franks' bill wouldn't impose this on Arizona. It's only on the District of Columbia.

There is nobody in this House that would not have taken umbrage at such undemocratic audacity, and so we did.

As for Senator Mike Lee, he realized what he was doing wasn't exactly kosher because he introduced the bill, and though he is a new Member--and every new Member puts out a press release about what he's done--he didn't put out a release on this bill. So we outed him. We put out a release on his bill. And then his newspapers began to talk, and so then he put out a release.

I think what I am talking about will be understood when you see how this occurred. One thing that most Americans have learned to do is respect the differences on very controversial issues. And one of the most controversial is abortion, an issue that really turns off Independents in this country but captures the verve of the right wing to this day, even though the right of women to reproductive choice was declared decades ago in Roe v. Wade. And, of course, when they come at women, Democrats respond.

Under Roe v. Wade, a woman is entitled to seek an abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy. In fact, the Supreme Court was at pains to say that it would not put a time limit on the number of weeks, that that's a matter of viability and a matter between the woman and her physician. Yet Senator Mike Lee and Representative Trent Franks sought to set the number of weeks on their own--in violation, of course, of the constitutional mandate in Roe v. Wade.

What are we supposed to do, sit down and take it?

I asked to testify at the hearing on Rep. Trent Franks' bill. Representative Trent Franks, as chairman of the subcommittee, denied me the right to testify, even though the bill related only to my district. He said that it was because the rules say that Democrats could have only one witness, and that they had chosen a woman, whom we had recommended, Professor Christy Zink, who had an abortion in the District of Columbia at 21 weeks on the recommendation of her physicians and her family when the fetus was discovered to be hopelessly deformed.

Of course we would want the committee to hear from such a person. And the rules may well be what Representative Franks says they are. But he clearly has no sense of common courtesy or comity, of congressional courtesy, where, as a matter of right, any such rule would be waived, particularly if the Member's own district were implicated.

It's bad enough to introduce a bill that has to do with somebody else's district, where nobody--not the physicians who are implicated, not the women and families who are implicated--can reach you because they can't vote for you. Hardly an act of courage.

If this is so important--and I have to believe it is to them--why wouldn't Senator Lee and Representative Franks introduce a 20-week bill for all the Nation? Why does their courage stop at the District line? This should be a matter of principle. How could you possibly want to stop abortions after 20 weeks only in one district?

Of course Representative Franks is in the habit of denying me the opportunity to testify when his subcommittee considers bills that affect only my district. He considered a bill that passed here in the House but was stopped in the Senate that would have permanently kept the District of Columbia, alone from spending its own local taxpayer funds on abortions for low-income women. What in the world does a Member from Arizona have to do with how we, in the District of Columbia, spend money that he had nothing to do with raising?

Having been denied the right to testify on that bill, no wonder I was denied again yesterday. Except this time, it went viral. And all over the United States, they are talking about how a Member introduces a bill relating to another Member's district, and she doesn't even get a waiver so that she can say something on behalf of her own constituents on the bill he has introduced, which will only affect those constituents and not his own.

And I'm supposed to like it? Well, I don't like it. And I'm not going to sit still for it.

I went to the hearing yesterday, and everyone was polite. Representative Franks invited me to sit on the all-male Member panel, but without being able to speak, to hear about how women in the District of Columbia should have their right to reproductive choice cut off by him. I didn't give him the opportunity for that optic, to have me on the panel, unable to say anything. Invite the Member from the District to sit on the panel, to integrate it so that there is at least one woman, and tell her to keep her mouth shut while they talk about her district, hear from one of her constituents, and talk about denying the women and families in her district what women and families are entitled to everywhere in the United States. No, sir, thank you.

What I want is the same rights everybody else has. I grew up as a second-class citizen in this town twice over--second class because we didn't have a Member of Congress until the 1970s, and second class because I was an African American and, therefore, as a child had to go to segregated schools.

And I'm not going to have my constituents, now that I am a Member of Congress, treated any differently from the way Representative Trent Franks' constituents are treated or Senator Mike Lee's constituents are treated.

We are free and equal Americans. We pay Federal income taxes just like everybody else. And yet we have no vote on the House floor. The nerve of Members introducing a bill that they expect to go to the House floor, and I would not even be able to vote on the bill. And yet it would apply only to my constituents.

Where is the sense of decency? There is none. I don't know about a war on women, but when you keep coming at the District of Columbia women, that's a war on them. And if you want to declare war, I'm here to do the best I can to fight back.

First, it was our low-income women, by barring D.C. from spending its local funds on abortions. They have succeeded in getting that rider re-embedded in our local budget. Now they want to do that on a permanent basis. And now they want to go to a 20-week limit, and no woman--low-income, high-income--no woman in the District of Columbia could get an abortion. And our physicians who care for women from all over this region and all over the country, who found what Professor Zink's physician found, which is that she should not carry that fetus to full term, would have to somehow ask her to find someone outside of the District of Columbia to perform an abortion under such tragic circumstances,--a woman who had a child and wanted another child. Who would put somebody through that?

It is an insatiable hunger that the small-government Tea Party Republicans are showing for interfering with the democratic rights of the people I represent. And I'm going to call them out. You're not going to get away with doing it in private. You're not going to get away with not having me testify. We're going to shout it to the hilltops that all you talk about--small government and that the Federal Government should get out of everybody's lives--and now you're hopping over those principles into the lives of 600,000 Americans who you are not accountable to, after the Congress said in 1973 that governing for the District of Columbia now 1973 belongs to the Mayor and the council of the District of Columbia only. No. We're not going to stand for it. You're going to hear from us.

The bill is patently unconstitutional. These very courageous Republicans gotten it passed in seven conservative States. They want a Federal imprimatur on this bill. So they say, Let's get the District of Columbia. What kind of courage do they lack? Do you believe in it? Introduce it. Introduce it for the women of America. What are you afraid of? Where's your spine? Do you only have a spine when it comes to 600,000 people who have a representative who you continue to disempower by denying her a vote on the House floor, including a vote on her own appropriation and a vote on the very bill that you've introduced to take away rights guaranteed under the Constitution that her citizens are entitled to?

The bill is patently unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade indicates that women are entitled to abortion care until viability. But do you know what else the bill is? It's a violation of our 14th Amendment right, because you are treating our women and our physicians differently than women and physicians are treated elsewhere in the United States.

Don't come at us with unequal protection and expect the people I represent to say, Okay, Mr. Congressman, just do whatever you like.

Keep doing it and we will keep calling you out. We will never let you get away with a cost-free undemocratic intrusion into our lives.

Last night, here comes Representative Phil Gingrey with a resolution, nonbinding, saying that active duty military personnel in the District of Columbia on personal time should not have to abide by the gun laws of the District of Columbia. Here we go again with our gun laws. We have stricer gun laws than some. So be it. Some States have strict gun laws, too. Are we less American than others that enact their own laws? At whose altar am I supposed to kneel? Who are my constituents supposed to bow down to? Nobody in this House or Senate.

Well, I opposed that resolution because if Representative Gingrey of Georgia thinks that active duty military personnel in their private capacities should not have to obey the gun laws in D.C, then he ought to wank it for every State in the Union.

You're not going to put on us bills for the District of Columbia that clearly have nationwide import in order to make your ideological points in a cheap and cynical way. Because that's what it is. It's on the cheap. It's a defiance of democracy, and it expects us to just let it go. On the contrary, it gets our dander up to be treated as less than full American citizens. It gets our dander up.
Sure, the resolution passed. It was nonbinding. But the fact is that, if you want to do a nonbinding resolution that says that gun laws shouldn't be applicable to active duty personnel in their personal capacities, there is no possible reason to limit that to one jurisdiction.

We will not have it. We are not vehicles, pawns, or instruments to be used at will. We are full-fledged American citizens who fought and died in every American war, including the war that created the United States of America. We are the only taxpaying citizens of the United States of America who have no voting representation in this House and none at all in the Senate.

Get off of your high, undemocratic horses. It's bad enough that you allowed that kind of a situation to go on for 200 years, but when you pile on and want to enact legislation that you don't have the nerve or the guts to enact for the entire country, but do such bills only for the District of Columbia, expect the District of Columbia to come back at you.

We may be only one jurisdiction, but we will never allow ourselves and our citizenship to be degraded, and we will not allow ourselves to be demeaned as the Franks-Lee bill did and as the Gingrey bill did. Go home and make your own constituents understand why you are legislating for somebody else's district and you tell me whether your Tea Party friends will say, Well done. I doubt it.

Mr. Speaker, this was a week when twice in the same week Republicans tried to roll over the District of Columbia. Once was too much; twice, I simply could not abide. So I issue fair warning. It's only me here. I can't hurt anybody. I can't even vote against you. But I can tell you this much: I'm not going to allow the unequal treatment of the taxpaying citizens I represent to go unaddressed ever, not for one single moment.

I yield back the balance of my time.

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