Metro Weekly

Senate appropriations bill emerges without D.C. riders

Senate refusal to attack D.C. nondiscrimination laws may bode well for coalition opposing congressional interference

The Senate side of the U.S. Capitol building (Credit: Scrumshus, via Wikimedia Commons).

The Senate side of the U.S. Capitol building (Credit: Scrumshus, via Wikimedia Commons).

Reproductive rights activists and their LGBT allies have won a small victory on the way to winning the larger battle over congressional interference in the District’s affairs. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations approved a bill that funds the District’s operations without any limitations on whether certain local laws can be enforced or implemented.

Specifically, the Senate appropriations bill does not target either the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act (RHNDAA) or the Human Rights Amendment Act (HRAA), two laws passed into law by District officials. A coalition of reproductive rights groups, LGBT organizations and local businesses had banded together to fight any attempt to repeal the laws, which were both targeted with resolutions of disapproval in order to overturn them. However, congressional lawmakers failed to act within the 30-day congressional review period to stop the bills from going into effect.

RHNDAA prevents employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees, their spouses and dependents for their reproductive decisions, such as if a woman has previously had an abortion, has opted to use birth control, or has undergone in vitro fertilization to become pregnant. HRAA prohibits religiously-affiliated educational institutions from discriminating against LGBT students or groups. Conservatives have argued that both laws infringe on religious freedom and have encouraged Congress to take steps to counteract them.

While HRAA was largely left alone and not targeted after going into effect, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee in June approved a measure that would prohibit the District from using its own funds to enforce RHNDAA. That bill also contained additional riders that prohibit the District from spending local tax dollars on abortion services for low-income women and from legalizing marijuana sales.

The lack of riders in the Senate bill spells a victory for members of the D.C. coalition, as the Senate bill must go to a conference committee to iron out differences between it and the version previously passed by the House.  But that means that highly controversial things like riders restricting the action’s of D.C.’s local government can potentially be omitted from the final version of the bill.

D.C.’s non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, issued a press release celebrating the short-term victory.

“I am deeply grateful to my Republican and Democratic friends in the Senate for recognizing the D.C. priorities we discussed both as to funds and language as demonstrated by the Senate Republican bill,” Norton said. “We should not be surprised that it contains no D.C. riders inserted by the Republican-led committee. The absence of riders is is consistent with the Republican philosophy that local spending and local laws should be set by locally elected officials.”

“It’s always a very good thing if the noxious things are out of the Senate bill,” says Richard J. Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA), which is part of the D.C. coalition. “The Senate has always been our backstop.”

Rosendall says the members of the D.C. coalition were a unit from the outset, not wanting to “trade” away women’s reproductive rights in exchange for LGBT rights. That’s why members were not satisfied just to have congressional Republicans back down from trying to challenge HRAA, and were vigilant in monitoring and galvanizing support from among the local business community to in opposition to a rider attacking RHNDAA.

“Given that D.C. is a favorite target at appropriations time, at least it gives us occasion to exercise our coalition and assert what we stand for,” he says. “If this mischief-making in Congress awakens the pro-choice movement, all the better, because we’ve got a lot of fighting left to do.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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