Saturday, April 9, 2011

The House Republicans and the last colony

As part of the deal that avoided a government shutdown, House Republicans managed to get in a provision that prohibits the District of Columbia from using its own funds to pay for abortions for low-income women. Even more outrageously, there is a provision, whose fate has yet to be worked out in the appropriations committees, that would prevent D.C. from using its own funds to pay for needle-exchange programs. How anyone could oppose the latter, whose aim is presumably to stop the spread of diseases (including HIV), is beyond me.

The limits of 'home rule' for the last colony in the mainland U.S. have long been apparent, but this brings them into sharp relief: there is nothing to prevent Congress from telling the District of Columbia how to spend its own funds. Suppose, as a hypothetical, that the legislature of Colorado passed a law allocating a certain sum of money, raised entirely from state taxes on Colorado residents, to fund the construction of a series of playgrounds in state parks. Could Congress prohibit that expenditure? Although abortion and needle exchanges are more controversial than playgrounds, the structure of what is going on is the same: Congress is prohibiting a jurisdiction from spending its own money for purposes that are neither unconstitutional nor illegal. Shame.

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