House committee votes to upend first D.C. law in 23 years

A House committee voted to overturn a new D.C. law on Tuesday night that would ban discrimination on the basis of employees’ reproductive decisions.

The rare congressional effort to turn back a local law pleased social conservatives who view the measure as a threat to religious organizations that operate in the nation’s capital. But it signaled a potentially perilous new chapter in partisan relations between the liberal city and its Republican overseers.

Over outbursts from activists for D.C. statehood, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 20-16, and along party lines, to block the law. To succeed, the repeal would still have to pass a vote of the full House and Senate, and President Obama would have to sign it within the next two weeks.

Facing so many hurdles, no House committee has initiated the process to upend a D.C. law in 23 years, and only three have ever passed. But with the District’s decision to proceed with legalizing marijuana in February, and conservatives last month threatening to undo D.C. gun laws, both sides agreed the committee vote marked an early low point since Republicans took control of Congress that could portend more conflict ahead.

Republicans have urged House budget leaders to block funding for D.C. to enforce the reproductive discrimination law if a congressional repeal does not succeed before a May 2 deadline. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, also scheduled what may be a first on Wednesday night: a town hall meeting with residents in D.C. to discuss how the next Republican-led congressional budget could adversely impact the city.

And in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday night, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the powerful Oversight Committee, said he was inclined to support proposals to roll back D.C. gun laws.

“I come from a belief that the Second Amendment should be equally implemented here in the District of Columbia. I should be able to carry if I so choose. I feel safer doing so.”

Chaffetz cast Tuesday night’s vote as a necessary effort to turn back a flawed D.C. law. He said he was not seeking a sustained conflict with city leaders but would not hesitate to take further action if D.C. oversteps its bounds.

“Most of my focus is not on Washington, D.C., but when they tend to step over the line, we’re going to do what we need to do,” Chaffetz said. “We have other tools at our disposal. That’s what the mayor and others need to remember. We’re not bashful about using those tools either.”

Democrats from at least 15 states wrapped Tuesday night’s vote in a national partisan fight over women’s reproductive freedom.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement calling the vote outrageous.

“Allowing employers to fire employees for using birth control, or in vitro fertilization, or any other reproductive health care service is an unconscionable intrusion into workers’ personal lives.”

The D.C. measure at issue is the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act. Passed last year by the D.C. Council and signed into law in January by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the measure broadens the definition of discrimination to include an employee’s reproductive health decisions. Under the law, employers cannot discriminate against employees who seek contraception or family planning services. They also cannot act when they know an employee has used medical treatments to either initiate or terminate a pregnancy.

Some conservatives have interpreted the bill to mean that employers in the District, including churches and anti-abortion groups like March for Life, could eventually be required to provide coverage for contraception and abortions.

The council passed a temporary fix to the bill to make clear that religious organizations would not be responsible for such medical care, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) reiterated that Tuesday in a letter to Chaffetz, but the Republican chairman said the fix was insufficient.

Chaffetz pointed to a Supreme Court decision last year to show that Congress was well within its rights to disapprove the D.C. measure. In that case, known as the Hobby Lobby decision, the court ruled that family-owned businesses do not have to offer their employees contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act if doing so conflicts with owners’ religious beliefs.

[Supreme Court sides with employers over birth control mandate]

“Apparently Republicans in Congress find the District’s law protecting women’s reproductive health so shocking and so repugnant that they are resurrecting this virtually dormant tactic in an attempt to reverse,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking committee member. “This tramples on the rights of the people of the District of Columbia simply to govern themselves.”

An influential group of House conservatives, the Republican Study Committee, has already written to the top House Republican on budget matters, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), urging that if the effort to repeal the D.C. law does not pass that Congress “wield its constitutional ‘power of the purse’ to prevent infringement of the fundamental constitutional protections for District-based employers and institutions.”

On Wednesday, however, Rep. William H. “Bill” Flores (R-Tex.), chairman of the study committee, along with other Republicans and religious groups celebrated.

The House committee vote to upend the D.C. law was “about protecting Americans’ sacred right to exercise their freedom of conscience,” Flores said. “The District’s law serves as a reminder that while religious freedom may be one of our nation’s oldest founding values, it is one we must continually protect and reaffirm.”

The Archdiocese of Washington, along with a coalition of faith-based and anti-abortion organizations, called on both chambers of Congress to move swiftly to pass the repeal.

Abortion rights groups blasted the decision.

“Women and men in D.C. should have the ability to make their own decisions about their reproductive health without fear of losing their jobs or facing retribution from their employers,” said a dozen organizations in a joint statement.

D.C. statehood groups also denounced the move.

Despite occasional discussions about giving the District a vote in Congress, the federal District remains without representation, and its own laws must go before Congress for review even as its population has surpassed that of both Vermont and Wyoming.

Before the vote Tuesday, a dozen activists for D.C. statehood stood and interrupted the meeting, yelling “D.C. votes no.” They were escorted from the chamber by U.S. Capitol Police. A well-known advocate for marijuana legalization in the District, Adam Eidinger, sitting nearby was also ordered to leave. He refused and was carried out by four police officers and issued a summons for disorderly conduct.