A House Judiciary Committee panel spent the opening minutes of its hearing on a bill to restrict funding for abortion sniping over the snub of one Democrat who requested to testify.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton looked on with a stern expression from her chair in the front row of the audience gathered in a Rayburn committee room Thursday as Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee Chairman Trent Franks, R-Ariz., rejected a request to allow the D.C. Democrat five minutes to speak to his panel about the bill’s impact on her constituents.
Franks’ No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act defines D.C. as a part of the federal government, codifying the annual riders attached to congressional appropriations bills for the city to prohibit D.C. from spending its own locally raised money on the funding of abortions.
Norton opposes the measure, claiming it would “both violate my local government’s right to self-government and harm its female residents.”
Speaking on her behalf as the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said allowing a member to testify on a bill that uniquely affects his or her district is a “common courtesy” and “normally a fairly pedestrian request.”
Under standard practice, the House Judiciary Committee invites three witnesses selected by the majority and one selected by the minority. At Thursday’s hearing, the Democrats invited a health care expert who could testify to the broader impacts of the proposal. Nadler wanted Franks to divert from the practice, as chairmen have done in the past, according to a parliamentarian counsulted by the committee’s Democratic spokesperson, and allow Norton to be the minority’s second witness.
“No member would tolerate Congress telling their state . . . how to spend their tax dollars, yet this bill would do just that to the citizens of our nation’s capital,” Nadler pleaded, calling the denial of the request “another example of the abuse of power. . . . Never in my more than 20 years as a member of this body have I seen a colleague treated as contemptuously as our colleague from the District of Columbia is being treated today.”
Franks welcomed Norton to the audience then reminded his Democratic colleagues that they were “free to invite Ms. Norton as their witness” and noted that he had personally extended that invite. He invited Norton to submit any materials she would like for the hearing’s record.
Franks said there was no reason to call Norton as a witness, “since the bill only mentions the District of Columbia to make clear that funds appropriated by Congress for the District of Columbia shall be, of course, considered federal funds — just like all other federal funds.”
Prior to the hearing, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray made an appearance on Capitol Hill to insist that such reasoning is hypocritical. He called the bill another “odious example” of why the city needs democracy, adding multiple times that he hated having to “make the pilgrimage” to the halls of Congress to defend the city’s use of its own locally raised dollars.
In the committee, Nadler also objected to Franks’ rationale, telling him “what you just said is not completely accurate” because the bill would dictate how D.C. can spend revenue collected from its own sales taxes, property taxes and income taxes.
Franks put Nadler’s objection to rest with a response that no doubt riled Gray and other local activists: “The District of Columbia is the seat of this government, according to the Constitution, and not a state, and consequently we will proceed.”
DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry called the GOP-sponsored bill, which has the backing of 141 Republicans and three Democrats, a move to score political points with special-interest groups. She said in a statement that denying Norton the opportunity to testify “is a blatant disregard for representative democracy.”
Gray had another suggestion for Franks, saying that if he wanted to legislate for D.C. he could resign from Congress, establish permanent District residency and campaign for a spot on the D.C. Council. He warned, however, that the Republican’s political views would probably make him “unelectable” in the liberal city.
An earlier version of this report did not specify that the committee parliamentarian was consulted by the committee?s Democratic spokesperson.