5 Questions for: Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)
Raw Story caught up to Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) shortly before a rally by Democrats from the District of Columbia calling for their community to become an independent state, New Columbia to talk about not only that issue but her run-in with House Republicans regarding her exclusion from testimony regarding an abortion-rights bill that would only have affected her constituency.
Raw Story: So there’s a rally today regarding D.C. voting rights. Let’s catch our readers up on where things stand on that issue.
Holmes Norton: We’ve made some real headway. As this president came into office, we were able to get a bill for a House vote, for the first time, passed in the House and the Senate. The only reason we don’t have it is because Republicans tried, successfully, to attach a bill that would have eliminated all of our gun [control] laws, so we had to give it up.
And, of course, during the time that this president has been in office, we were able to remove all of the so-called riders or attachments that Congress adds to legislation to try to keep us from spending our own local money. Only one has been added since [President Obama took office], and that was a rider on abortions for low-income women. We’re the only jurisdiction in the United States that can’t spend our own funds for abortion services for low-income women. They weren’t successful in adding a rider that has meant life and death. The rider that drove our HIV/AIDS rate up by keeping us from spending our own funds on needle exchanges. Since Republicans have been very active during this term, it’s been very important to have a Democrat in office. It’s one of the reasons you will find DC residents very pro-Democratic party.
Raw Story: Why have the Republicans come after you so hard this term?
Holmes Norton: We believe it’s the large turnover that brought Tea Party Republicans in. And with them came people who are so far-right on not only economic issues – people who almost got us shutting down the government to keep us from raising the debt limit, which is as far as you can get economically – but also on social issues. So they have gone back on something that they seemed to have let up on which is, less talk on social issues and abortion to now, the “personhood approach,” where an egg and a sperm equals a person. They put a bill out – that almost passed – that would have kept any woman who lives in the district from having an abortion pre-viability, after 20 weeks. Only in the district.
Raw Story: This is the bill that came up back in May, if I recall correctly. And, you were not allowed to testify at the subcommittee hearing on it.
Holmes Norton: This is one of those unbelievable slights that they just saw as, “What’s wrong here?” It’s a matter of courtesy. Remember, members are allowed to testify when the bill affects other districts, because almost no bill affects only one district. When I asked for the right to testify about a bill that only affected my district, I was told that the Democrats already had a witness.
That was very important to us – it was a woman, a young professor who had to have an abortion at 21 weeks, because she had a fetus that had virtually no brain. We certainly wanted that on the record. So we said, of course that has to happen – she lives in the district, she would have had to carry that fetus to term. So they said, “You’re only allowed one witness, so if that’s your witness, the member cannot testify.” It’s interesting that that caught the public’s attention more than, I think, the underlying bill. It seemed to the public to be characteristic of the way in which the Republicans had come on against the President, saying, “No part of your program would be passed,” “We just want to make sure you’re a one-term President” – that kind of meanness seemed to be reflected in the way they approached this bill, as well.
Raw Story: They also stacked the panel with anti-abortion doctors.
Holmes Norton: They did. They called witnesses, none of whom were scientists; they were doctors who testified about how they cared for low-birthrate babies. Whereas the science is pretty indisputable that viability occurs after 20 weeks. And if it’s not, then it’s certainly not for Congress to decide – in fact, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court said this is not a decision to be decided by statute. It’s a matter that has to be decided by physicians and scientists.
[Republicans] were out of order in a number of ways, but particularly in picking out one district; if it was so important, if choice is a matter of principle, why would you have only wanted to cut off the rights in the district? We think what’s clear is that probably the leadership decided they weren’t going to put this bill on for the entire nation, because they would get such a backlash. Remember, this came after the backlash on contraception, so they came up with this, and I think this is telling: they didn’t put it on the regular calendar. They put it on a special calendar for non-controversial bills that required a two-thirds majority vote. We lost it, but they didn’t get two-thirds.
Raw Story: What needs to happen next for your community?
Holmes-Norton: What we want is statehood. We know full-well we’re not going to get statehood tomorrow. We are closer than most people think to getting budget autonomy. It is a special outrage that our budget, raised exclusively in the Distict of Columbia, not the parts of the budget that every jurisdiction gets from the federal government, our local budget has to come before Congress before we can spend one thin dime of it. That’s why we almost closed down when Congress closed down.
The President is very supportive of budget autonomy; he’s put budget autonomy in his own budget. And, we do have strong Republican support, interestingly, from a man who’s known as a strong Republican champion, Darrell Issa [R-CA], who also has jurisdiction over the committee that encompasses the district. He’s for budget autonomy – has his own bill that mirrors my bill.
The House majority leader, Eric Cantor [R-VA], has come out for budget autonomy, and so has – and I think these are related – Republican [Virginia] governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell says, one, he doesn’t see how a chief executive can run a city or a state if you don’t know when your budget is coming in, but he also says 100,000 residents from Virginia commute in to work in D.C., so any issues involving when their budget comes out affects the operations that, in turn, affect his residents. And that may be why Cantor is also going in to support budget autonomy. That is one of the most essential elements of statehood. We went to budget autonomy rather than going back to voting rights because we knew that Republicans wouldn’t let us get very far on that. As you see, we are getting some Republican support for budget autonomy; we even have a bipartisan bill in the Senate. Joe Lieberman [I-VT] is the chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over D.C. and his ranking member, Susan Collins, have a bill that looks almost exactly like my bill.