Posted by Tod Lindberg on July 18th, 2000
The Washington Times
Every now and again, D.C. politics contrives to produce an entirely irrational result. Such is the case with the D.C. Council’s vote last week to require all city employers offering prescription drug plans to include coverage for contraceptives.
The no-exceptions mandate is deeply offensive to the Catholic Church, whose teaching opposes artificial means of birth control as well as abortion (some birth control measures take effect after conception). The church is, of course, a big employer in the District, not only at churches and parochial schools, but also at such major institutions as Providence Hospital and Georgetown University. It’s also a huge provider of social services for the District’s poor. Regardless of what you think about abortion and contraception, the idea of a municipal government’s feeling free to overrule the Catholic Church on a basic tenet of faith is a huge intrusion on religion freedom.
Now, if one’s concerns about teen pregnancy or other public health matters require that one mandate insurance coverage for contraceptives, there is a perfectly rational way to do so while accommodating the concerns of Catholics and others who have religious objections. That’s to include a “conscience clause” that allows people to opt out in those cases. Maryland didn’t have any trouble getting to that result when it imposed a similar mandate, nor have other states.
The District did. Council member Jim Graham was the leading proponent of the measure. The council voted down a version of a conscience clause that was too weak to do the job; it would have exempted churches from the mandate but not a church-owned hospital. Rather than work out a provision that would satisfy the entirely legitimate concerns of the church, the council went on to approve the provision without a conscience exemption.
Why? This is where the story gets interesting. In no small measure, because of a gay pride rally in Rome the weekend before and the comments made in response to it by Pope John Paul II about the church’s opposition to homosexuality. These comments were deeply offensive to Mr. Graham, who is gay. He averred, “I’ve spent years fighting church dogma.” He also said, “My problem is surrendering decisions on public health to the church.”
So the riled-up Mr. Graham pressed ahead and the council followed, with humiliation and doubts about the District’s ability to govern itself the inevitable result. If D.C. lawyers don’t step in to find the measure invalid (and they might), and if Mayor Anthony Williams doesn’t decide to veto it (as he may or may not), Congress will surely act to overturn it. The vote will not be close, because in the rational political world, one does not indulge one’s pique by sticking a finger in the eye of the Catholic Church (especially with an election coming up in which both political parties agree that the Catholic vote is critical).
Faced with this prospect, we are now hearing the usual chorus bemoaning congressional interference with home rule. True, Congress is interfering. But now, please, let’s hear the defense of this particular exercise of home rule. There is no defense. And what about the fact that this measure would be politically impossible anywhere else in the country?
In a way, statehood does lie at the heart of the District’s political problems, as its proponents say. It is not, however, that D.C. needs statehood; it’s that D.C. is not in a state. Any other city trying this sort of thing would be frustrated at once by lawmakers in the state capital. That’s because no state, even the most liberal, has a unicameral representative government elected entirely by a socially liberal, urban constituency and subject solely to the pressures such a constituency generates.
What politics in the District tends to lack is what the “Federalist” puts at the center of the American constitutional scheme. The idea is “to supply by opposite and rival interest the defect of better motive.” People can’t be counted on to do the right thing, but they can be counted on to act according to their interest. The trick, then, is designing the system so that interests don’t run unchecked but meet resistance in the form of contrary interests.
There are plenty of cities in which the political order is every bit as liberal on social issues as the District’s, but none in which such a political order has anything like final say over local law and policy. In practical terms, urban interests compete with suburban interests and with rural interests. Sectional and regional interests also compete with each other. Most states even have people who are ideologically conservative, a largely irrelevant strain of opinion among the D.C. electorate. After all, not a soul on the D.C. Council opposed the idea of mandating contraception coverage; the notion that such a thing should be up to an employer to decide is simply beyond the pale.
A rational political process does not reach the conclusion to tell the Catholic Church to wise up and get with the program on contraception. Someone rises to counterbalance a Jim Graham. For structural reasons alone, District politics is from time to time unable to supply such counterbalance, with embarrassing results like the one here.