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.