DC Vote activists disrupted a Tuesday hearing on abortion to protest Republican encroachments on the District’s autonomy, the first action in what they say could be a rowdy Congressional session.
The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act saw its first hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, and the protest was more about D.C. rights than the hot-button social issue.
DC Vote believes the Republican bill would unfairly dictate how the District can spend its taxpayer money, and the group plans a more obstinate stance toward protecting District home rule than it has shown in previous Congresses.
“We are going to protest a lot this year,” the group’s executive director, Ilir Zherka, said after the hearing. “Whether it’s every time [there is a hearing] is a question we’ll have to keep to ourselves.”
The GOP leadership-backed measure would essentially reinstate a ban on D.C. abortion funding that the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Barack Obama lifted in 2009.
It’s not simply the bill’s provisions restricting federal funds from being used to fund abortions that DC Vote activists take exception to, but a provision that they say would federalize all District funds and restrict city taxpayer funds from being used to fund abortions.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) called the legislation “unprecedented” and said it “goes many steps too far” in “crossing the line between autocracy and democracy to dictate to the self-governing District of Columbia that it may not use its own taxpayer-raised money for abortions for low-income women.”
“We are here today to put the Republicans on notice. The District of Columbia is not a colony of the Congress,” she said at a press conference held before the hearing. “They pick on the District of Columbia because they think they can. I’m here to tell them today that they can’t.”
Speaking generally about the bill, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters earlier in the day, “This is consistent with our commitment that we are going to move to take away all government funding for abortion.”
Norton did not attend the hearing. She said she asked to testify but was refused by Rep. Trent Franks, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee.
In the hearing, the Arizona Republican defended his decision by stating that he had already allowed testimony from one minority witness, a representative from the National Abortion Federation.
But when he called the hearing to order, 11 protesters from DC Vote, including Zherka and D.C. shadow Sen. Michael Brown, rose to their feet. They placed red gags in their mouths to, as Zherka put it, “symbolize the city’s plight” and protest Republicans’ attempts to “silence the District.”
About a dozen Capitol Police officers responded, and the protesters were removed from the hearing room one by one. No arrests were made or citations issued, though police took down the demonstrators’ names.
Zherka told Roll Call in December that the Republican takeover of the House will warrant “radicalization of the movement,” and this protest is the first step.
The group had little to picket in the 110th and 111th Congresses.
Democratic leaders removed riders from the bills governing the District’s budget in the House and Senate Appropriations committees. During Republican rule of both chambers, those attachments restricted the D.C. government from funding abortions, medical marijuana and needle exchange programs.
Last Congress, the Senate passed a bill that would have given Norton full voting privileges, but a controversial gun amendment prevented Democratic leaders from bringing it to a vote on the floor.
This year Republicans removed Norton’s vote in the Committee of the Whole and are now bringing up the abortion bill, so the protesters say it’s time to speak up. Norton said she doubts this bill would pass the Senate or gain the president’s signature, but that “it does a lot of good” to protest.
“We can’t let the Senate and the president think this doesn’t matter to us,” she said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.