Policy

House Poised to Block D.C. Suicide Law but Senate May Not Act

Oversight committee approves resolution overturning the law

Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup introduced the resolution to overturn the District of Columbia’s assisted suicide law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Monday approved a resolution to overturn a District of Columbia law that would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients who request them. The 22-14 vote was the culmination of an emotional markup that pitted Democratic support for local governance against the Republican majority’s assertion of congressional power over D.C. law.

The D.C. law is similar to those in five other states and requires the physician to assert that the patient is mentally competent, along with other safeguards, before the drugs are administered. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed it into law in December after an 11-2 council vote.

Congress has oversight power over the District’s lawmaking, and in early January, the D.C. law was sent to Congress for a 30-day review. However, there are conflicting views about when the deadline for congressional action might be. The District believes the resolution would need to pass the Senate by Friday, but given the flexibility of the congressional clock, supporters say they wouldn’t be shocked if the deadline is extended.

The short timeline is giving supporters of the local law hope that the disapproval resolution would stall in the Senate, where it would likely be subject to debate and may even have trouble attracting a simple majority. Two Republican senators — Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana — hail from states where physician-assisted suicide is effectively legal. Colorado voters passed a referendum last fall legalizing the practice, and in Montana, a state high court ruling in 2009 said that nothing should prohibit a physician from prescribing life-ending medication if a mentally competent, terminally ill patient requested it.

D.C.’s nonvoting representative in Congress, Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, sharply criticized Republicans for pursuing the disapproval resolution. “I’m not asking members to take a view on the underlying bill, only on the principle of self-government, local control,” she said. Republicans”know nothing of the District of Columbia,” she said, imploring them to “stay out of it.”

Norton suggested that Republicans were going after the District because they had failed to advance any policy on a national level. In the 1990s, after Oregon became the first state to implement a physician-assisted death law, there was a congressional effort to make the prescribing of the life-ending drugs illegal nationwide. In 1999, the House passed a bill 271-156, but after a hearing and a markup in the Senate, it never received a floor vote.

In Monday’s markup, Rep. Jim Cooper, a centrist Democrat from Tennessee, was the only member of his party to support the resolution. Rep. Darrell Issa of California was the only Republican to vote no. His state also has a physician-assisted death law, and Issa argued that Congress needed to revisit the issue on a national level and examine how well it is being handled in the states where it is legal.

“I do not believe we have reached the required level of federal action to support repealing this, but not because I agree with it, but because I think our inaction in other areas should be considered in addition to whatever we do here tonight,” he said.

Republicans on the committee frequently cited objections from the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio. Wenstrup and Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe spelled out their concerns about the D.C. law in an essay in the conservative National Review magazine. The two Republicans said the bill’s definition of terminal disease was too broad and the safeguards to protect those in a vulnerable mental and emotional state weren’t strong enough.

Supporters of the D.C. bill counter that these same arguments were raised and considered while the local council debated and made changes to the bill.

“This was debated over the better part of two years. The council had more hearings than is normally the case to be sure that all objections were heard,” said Mark Glaze, an advocate for the D.C. law with the nonprofit Death With Dignity National Center. “It’s not as though D.C. didn’t consider these arguments.”

Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz said he opposed the D.C. law and therefore supported the resolution but he sought to distance himself from its genesis. “I did not ask for this to come to me,” he said.

That comment was likely directed to the hearing room packed with local protestors, who stood outside the Rayburn House Office Building directing their ire at Chaffetz. Elissa Silverman, an independent D.C. councilmember who represents the entire city, referenced angry constituents who squared off with Chafettz at a town hall meeting in Utah last week. “His constituents were angry about what was going on in Utah. They were angry about their health care,” she said. “I didn’t see a lot of people upset about the District’s death with dignity law.”

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