Abortion funds and school vouchers: D.C. done wrong

There were winners and losers in the eleventh-hour spending compromise reached by President Obama, Senate Democrats and House Republicans. Among the conspicuous losers was the District of Columbia, which found itself overruled by Congress on two policy matters. First, the deal prohibits the use of public funds for abortion in the district. Second, it reinstates for five years a school voucher plan that leaders of the district opposed. Both actions are unjustifiable intrusions on the authority of the district government and dramatize the second-class status of the nation’s capital.

In 1973, Congress passed a home-rule act for the district providing for an elected mayor and city council. The law, which was ratified by the district’s voters, was quite clear about its purpose: “to the greatest extent possible, consistent with the constitutional mandate, [to] relieve Congress of the burden of legislating upon essentially local district matters.” Now Congress has assumed that burden not because it had to but because of a difference with district officials over policy matters.

Government-funded abortions are rare in the district, but local officials should have the right to decide whether such services are provided, as states do. Defenders of the restrictions argue that it’s an extension of the national policy against the use of federal funds for abortion. But the district. levies its own taxes. Whatever one thinks of public funding for abortion — and we believe abortion should be treated like any other medical procedure for funding purposes — Congress’ heavy-handed prohibition intrudes on the home rule the district was promised.

The other provision reestablishes the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides taxpayer-funded vouchers that parents can use to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Advocates of the program argue that it has increased student achievement and graduation rates; opponents disagree. Regardless of who is right, under home rule, public education is the province of the district. If Congress enacted a voucher program for the entire country, that would be different. Here it is using its reserve powers over the district to dictate policy for a single city.

The district is undeniably unlike other cities in the United States, and under the Constitution, home rule exists at the sufferance of Congress. Short of a constitutional amendment making the district a state — an elusive goal — it will retain its anomalous status. But Congress recognized something important when it established home rule: that giving residents a say in their local affairs strengthens democracy. The two provisions added to the budget compromise violated that principle. They should be repealed.