House Panel Votes To Overturn D.C. ‘Death With Dignity’ Law

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Washington, February 13, 2017 | comments
Mikaela Lefrak and Martin Austermuhle

A nearly straight party-line vote by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to overturn a D.C. law giving terminally ill residents the right to end their own lives prompted plenty of impassioned debate on Capitol Hill Monday night, but whether it will have any real impact is in doubt.

Led by Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the panel voted 22-14 in favor of sending to the House floor H.J. Res. 27, a bill authored by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican, that would block the D.C. law giving District physicians the right to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live.

However that may be as far as it goes. Unless conservative Republican backers of the manage to get the committee-passed “resolution of disapproval” through the House and Senate and signed by President Donald Trump by the end of the week — an exceedingly uphill battle given the normal pace of Congress, the possibility of a filibuster in the Senate and ambiguous signals from the White House about Trump’s position — the law appears likely to take effect as passed by D.C. Council and signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The bill becomes law if it is not blocked within 30 legislative working days of being sent Congress. By the D.C. City Council’s calculations, time is up for opponents of the Death With Dignity bill on or about Saturday. That leaves an almost impossibly narrow window for floor votes in the House and Senate. Moreover, it is not even certain that Trump would sign a disapproval resolution. White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to say what the president might do when asked about the Death With Dignity law at a press briefing last week.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, one of six states that already have enacted legislation similar to D.C.’s right-to-die bill, was the only member of the committee to cross party lines. The Republican lawmaker voted against the so-called resolution of disapproval. Every other Republican on the panel voted for it.

“I worry that assisted suicide will create a marketplace for death,” Chaffetz said.

In a statement after the committee vote, Bowser called it “a signal to DC residents that Congress has zero respect or concern for their will or the will of their elected officials.”

Before the vote, the District’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, delivered an emotional defense of the District’s right to govern itself, calling the move by her colleagues “a live abuse of congressional power.” She told Republican opponents of the legislation to stay out of her constituents’ business. “You who know nothing about the District of Columbia,” she said.

Norton got backup from her across-the-river colleague, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who described his own experiences caring for his dying father-in-law and chastised one of his colleagues, Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., for likening a “painful, personal decision” to “Hitlerian eugenics.”

“Do the right thing and mind your own business,” Connolly concluded, to the applause of the audience, prompting a scolding from Chaffetz.

Rep. Jamin Raskin, D-Md., also came to D.C.’s defense, accusing his congressional colleagues of meddling. “We should not sit here as a super city council,” he said. Paraphrasing the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the constitutional law professor said that D.C. residents must be quickly coming to the conclusion that “Hell is other people’s representatives.”

The audience at the committee meeting, which lasted until past 7:30, included activists in the right to die movement, including at least one who considers herself a potential beneficiary: Mary Klein, a 69-year-old D.C. resident who is dying of cancer. In an earlier interview with WAMU, Klein described the measure’s passage, by an 11-2 D.C. Council vote in November, as “a great relief.” Dan Diaz, the widower of Brittany Maynard, a young woman who wrote about her decision to end her life after a long battle with brain cancer, also turned up “to support D.C.,” he said.

Chaffetz and other Republican conservatives have argued that the D.C. law should be nullified because it runs counter to ethical prohibitions against suicide. Most of the Republicans on the committee framed their opposition as a “pro-life” stance, with a number expressing concerns that the D.C. law could leave vulnerable dying patients at the mercy of physicians and relatives eager to hasten their exit. But Issa, argued that, given Congress’ failure to stop such legislation nationally, he didn’t think interference in D.C. affairs was justified.

The 1973 Home Rule Act gives Congress the power to overturn legislation approved by D.C. lawmakers, but that power has been used only three times before. Because the odds appear to be against an override measure passing both chambers of Congress and being signed by Trump in time to prevent the Death With Dignity measure from becoming law, the most long-lasting impact may be an energized movement for D.C. autonomy, judging by the strong reaction of D.C. policy makers and residents.

Bowser joined proponents of the D.C. law at a “Hands Off D.C.” demonstration on Capitol Hill prior to Monday’s committee meeting; D.C. Council member Charles Allen followed up later in the evening with a town hall meeting that packed the Atlas Theater.
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