DC lawmakers look ahead as Congress moves to halt death with dignity law

WASHINGTON – D.C. lawmakers are back in session and while there’s plenty on their plates this fall, the Council chair is reflecting on a controversial D.C. law that Congress could still quash.

Looking ahead to a legislative session that will tackle D.C. teacher contracts, short-term rentals and funding for paid family leave, Council Chair Phil Mendelson referenced a cloud hanging over the District — the fate of the District’s death with dignity law, which took effect this summer.

“They’ve delegated an awful lot to us, so they should just leave us alone,” Mendelson said during a press briefing in reference to the 1973 Congressional act granting the District limited Home Rule.

The District has begun to roll out the law and any efforts by Congress to halt it would make ending the program more difficult.

The Council passed the bill in November in an 11-2 vote, after more than a year of debate. The bill allows terminally ill patients 18 years old and older, with six months or fewer to live, to request lethal medication from their doctors.

But an amendment to repeal it introduced by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, was included in a massive House spending bill passed last week and headed to the Senate, Harris’ office said.

If senators include the repeal in their version of the spending bill, it would be part of a package headed to President Donald Trump’s desk.

“House Republicans express endless love of local control of local affairs, their central party principle, except when it comes to the District of Columbia,” D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a statement. “They preach the constitutional principle of federalism, yet use the big foot of the federal government to undemocratically overturn and block local D.C. policies they disagree with, solely on a political basis.”

Federal scrutiny of controversial legislation is not unique to the medical-aid-in-dying initiative. Members of Congress have previously moved to block needle exchanges, the legalization of marijuana and abortion subsidies for low income women.

“We’re just in a ridiculous situation here with marijuana possession. It is not illegal, but we can’t regulate it. We can regulate every drug under the sun … we can’t do anything with regard to marijuana,” Mendelson said.

While he made clear he does not support any Congressional involvement in local matters, Mendelson spoke to the commitment, time and consideration spent that he indicated seems to be disregarded on Capitol Hill.

“These are complex issues and they require a tapestry of decisions and for Congress to step in and pick out one issue, one bill is really inexcusable and bad governing,” Mendelson said.

The future of D.C.’s death with dignity bill will likely be decided by the end of this year, according to Councilwoman Mary Cheh’s office.

Congress must pass a spending package to fund the government by Dec. 8, when a temporary funding measure expires.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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