You’re Under Arrest

Washington, D.C., politicians protest the city’s status as a budget bargaining chip—but that’s what it is.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray

Vincent Gray found out about the details of the budget deal the same way that everyone else did. That was sort of a problem; Gray is the mayor of Washington, D.C. On Monday afternoon, Gray arrived at a rally outside the U.S. Senate offices, sponsored by DC Vote, a nonprofit with the thankless task of lobbying for representation in Congress. Gray moved slowly through the crowd, alternating between hugs for activists and polite answers for reporters.

“I sent a letter just a couple of days ago, on Friday, to Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,” said Gray. (As he spoke, an activist named Harry Wills hoisted a sign reading REID: TAKE THE RIDERS OUT NOW.) “I was making the case, once again, and asking again for their support, to give the citizens of D.C. the wherewithal to spend their own money.”

How’d he find out that the city didn’t get it?

“I found out through the media,” Gray said.

Was he surprised by that?

“I think we deserve a response to our letter, from the speaker and the majority leader,” he said, diplomatically, as news crews swarmed him.

The news crews were there to capture what came next. Gray, joined by most of D.C.’s city council, delivers some stemwinders from on top of a small soapbox, then walked onto Constitution Avenue to block traffic. They stood there as patient police redirected traffic. They eventually sat down and talked among themselves as police gave reporters a choice between moving to the sidewalk or joining the mayor in a paddy wagon.

What, exactly, were Washington’s civic leaders so angry about? They thought they’d been sold out. They were not wrong. In the short-term budget negotiations, President Obama faced an impasse over some of the policy riders that Republicans had battled hard to get—a ban on funding for NPR, a ban on funding for Planned Parenthood, a measure to hamstring the EPA. The riders were traded away for deeper cuts and a few shining baubles—the D.C. riders. The city’s needle exchange program would be defunded. A ban on reimbursing poor women for abortions, lifted in 2009, would be resurrected. And the school voucher program, which had expired under the Democratic Congress, would be funded again. According to the Washington Post, the president offered the abortion and voucher riders to John Boehner—they were two of his top priorities—and said, “I will give you D.C. abortion.”

The quote started circulating on Saturday. It had the expected effect, and by Monday, it was already being altered in an angry game of telephone— most people at the rally thought Obama said “I’ll give you D.C.,” or something similar. “When I read those words,” said Iler Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, “I felt like someone punched me in the gut. I still can’t get them out of my mind.”

There is no nice way to write this, so here goes: Obama picked the right guts to punch. The selling out of D.C. was classic, and predictable, realpolitik.

Start with D.C.’s negotiating position. It’s an awfully weak one. Since 1973, D.C. has had home rule, a certain amount of control over its budget and institutions—as long as it doesn’t do anything Congress doesn’t want it to do. Starting in 1995, when Republicans took over the House for the first time in the home-rule era, Congress really took advantage of this. The abortion funding ban sailed through Republican committees. When D.C. voters approved a medical marijuana ballot initiative, Congress forbade the city from certifying the results.

There was a glimmer of hope for D.C. liberals in 2009, when Obama took office and a Democratic majority held Congress. Congress reversed the GOP’s policy decisions, but they fumbled legislation that would have given the district a vote in Congress. The bill was hung up, then killed, because Republicans successfully attached a measure that would have reversed all of D.C.’s gun laws.

It seemed shortsighted for Democrats, with a two-year legislative window, to give up on more home-rule laws because Republicans would attach some policy riders to them. As home-rule activists told me last year, this was the kind of stuff that would probably pass a Republican House anyway. And so it is.

“We knew in our hearts that when the abortion funding ban was lifted, it wouldn’t last,” said Tiffany Reid, a director at the DC Abortion Fund, which helps pay when poor women need the procedure. “We knew it would be the first thing to go if Republicans won. We planned for this to happen.”

What effect does this have on D.C.? According to Douglas Johnson, the legislative director of National Right to Life, the pro-life rider could prevent one-quarter of the abortions that happen in the city every year—that would prevent, by loose estimates, from 600 to 1,000 abortions. On Monday it inspired a rally of around 100 people, most of them Democrats, newly pissed off at their party.

“I just don’t support the president as much as I used to,” sighed Lenore Serk, who carried one of many signs portraying Harry Reid as a sleazy gambler using the city as a chit. “I’m retired, so I’m not looking for a job from anyone and I’m not afraid to say that. I can’t believe he’s doing this.”

But it’s not hard to see why Obama would do this. Obama can trade away D.C.’s laws for the same reason that Republicans don’t want to give the city a vote in Congress: The city votes for Democrats at more or less the rate Egyptians used to “vote” for Hosni Mubarak. (The vote count is more accurate in D.C.)

If we’re willing to be cynical for a moment, Obama has even more room to move because a D.C. sellout is good for the city’s political class. The stars of the Monday rally and arrests were Gray and City Council Chairman Kwame Brown, both of whom took office in January and started long, slow public meltdowns. Gray spent weeks explaining why he’d hired unqualified and underqualified political allies to vital city jobs, a process that reached its nadir when he gave a six-figure job to a fringe candidate (from the We Love D.C. Party) who’d been useful in his 2010 race. Brown’s offenses have been pettier and flashier, none more so than the saga of two “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigators he’d leased on the city’s dime. (The second car was ordered because the interior wasn’t black, as requested, in the first car.)

On Monday, Brown and Gray got to stand in front of cameras and hollering protesters, present their wrists to the police, and get slapped with plastic handcuffs. Before that, Gray got to lead the crowd in a series of cheers.

“Are you tired of being a pawn in a political game?” asked Gray.

The protesters cheered. Really, it was all they could do.