House to Take First Step to Overturn D.C. Assisted Suicide Law

Local groups plan to protest latest salvo against home rule

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz has taken an aggressive stance on reviewing D.C. laws and budgets. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz has taken an aggressive stance on reviewing D.C. laws and budgets. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 10, 2017 at 9:03pm

A House committee will take the first official step Monday evening to overturn a new Washington, D.C., assisted suicide law, raising concerns locally that a Republican-controlled Congress will be emboldened to interfere with city government under President Donald Trump.

Actually overturning the so-called Death With Dignity Act would require an improbable series of events. After the vote on the disapproval resolution at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the measure would have to pass floor votes in both the House and the Senate president before Feb. 17. That’s according to a timeline set out by the city’s Home Rule Act.

Such a quick turnaround would be challenging even when the Senate is not preoccupied with Cabinet appointments and Supreme Court nominations.

But the threat nevertheless has incited fervent opposition from Democrats on the committee, local politicians and groups devoted to district home rule. More than 500 people have RSVPed to a rally against congressional interference in district affairs called by a D.C. councilman to coincide with the committee vote.

“No member of Congress would stand for unwarranted congressional interference in their own state or local affairs, and none of us should stand for it in this case,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings  said in a statement. The Maryland Democrat is the ranking member on the Oversight committee.

“This resolution is an attempt by Republicans to replace the policies of the District’s own elected officials, and I strongly urge my colleagues to vote against it,” he said.

The District law is modeled after similar measures in Washington State, California and Colorado. It would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who ask for it and are expected to have less than six months to live. It was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in December, kicking off a 30-day period for Congress to take action under the home rule law.

Oversight Chairman, Jason Chaffetz, in a Washington Post opinion piece, called the new law “misguided,” and said it is “imperative” that Congress act to overturn it.

“We should not now or ever take steps to help facilitate, encourage or tacitly accept measures that prematurely end lives,” he said.

Chaffetz declined to comment further.

The congressional resolution formally registers’ disapproval with the District council and kicks off the repeal process. It was submitted by GOP Reps. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania and Ann Wagner of Missouri.

Chaffetz has taken an aggressive stance on reviewing the District’s laws and budget, over which the Committee on Oversight and Government reform has jurisdiction. Chaffetz has said he wants to step up those efforts in the current Congress.

It is unclear what policies the committee would target next. But in recent years, Chaffetz has introduced bills aimed at overturning District laws on progressive social policies, including gay marriage and recreational marijuana. Under his chairmanship, the Oversight Committee has also targeted DC abortion rights.

Congress has had the legal authority to overturn D.C. laws since the District was given the authority for form a local government in 1973, setting up perennial friction between lawmakers on the Hill and their local counterparts.

The disapproval process is so cumbersome that it rarely succeeds — only three District laws have ever been nullified by Congress, most recently in 1991.

But even if a law remains in place, congressional lawmakers could weaken it significantly by cutting off the money the city would need to enforce it or repeal it through the appropriations process. Annual riders on the D.C. spending bill prevent the city from spending money on medical marijuana or abortion, for example.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the date of the last time Congress successfully voted to overturn a District law. The article also misstated the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s recent actions concerning DC laws.