Meddling for Morality: Republicans are for states’ rights- when it suits them
FOR a party that likes to preach about the evils of an overweening federal government and the virtues of deferring authority to states, localities and individuals, it was a peculiar stance. Yet the vast majority of Republican members of the House of Representatives voted this week to ban abortions in Washington, DC beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy. The constitution gives Congress the power to administer the city in which it sits (and denies the city’s residents the right to send any representatives to Congress), and although a more magnanimous bunch of legislators granted the city home rule in the 1970s, their successors regularly meddle in everything from its transport budget to its needle exchanges.
Thanks to a procedural quirk the abortion bill needed, and did not get, a two-thirds majority to be approved. It never stood a chance in the Senate, and would doubtless have suffered legal challenges too, since it seemed to run against the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade. It made no exception in cases of rape or incest, threatened wayward doctors with prison sentences and would have allowed third parties to secure injunctions against abortions they suspected were about to happen. It was, in short, election-year posturing of the most transparent sort. Nonetheless Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s official but impotent observer in Congress (the Republican leadership did not even allow her to testify at a hearing on the law), was livid. “States’ rights—I thought that was their thing,” she sputtered.
The District of Columbia is not, of course, a state, and Republican congressmen who wish to micromanage its affairs are perfectly within their rights, constitutionally speaking. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the party’s current thinking about federalism is, as one conservative scholar tersely observes, “confused”. There is a general sense that the federal government has expanded beyond any reasonable limits, best exemplified by the tea party’s revulsion for Barack Obama’s health-care reforms. In the primaries the Republican presidential candidates tried to prove their fealty to this view by outbidding one another in their zeal to abolish cabinet departments. Newt Gingrich promised to dispense with the Environmental Protection Agency; Rick Perry saw no need for the departments of Commerce and Education along with a third that he couldn’t recall, and Ron Paul had it in for no fewer than five departments, plus the Federal Reserve.