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|Congress hamstrings AIDS fight
(Published October 17, 2005)
By BILL MOSLEY
As this issue of The Common Denominator goes to press, Congress has yet to take final action on the District of Columbia’s annual appropriation. The District’s annual budget, unlike that of any other U.S. jurisdiction – state, city, county or territory – is subject to congressional approval. This gives the federal government the unique ability not only to dictate the District’s fiscal priorities, but also to impose social policies on the more than 550,000 residents of the nation’s capital – all without our consent or even being able to cast a vote for or against.
In the House of Representatives’ version of this year’s proposed budget, the most prominent and egregiously anti-democratic new provision – proposed by Mark Souder, a Republican representative from Indiana – would sweep away the District’s restrictions on handguns. Our lack of voting representation in Congress means that, like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, we must depend on the kindness of strangers in Congress to protect us from such assaults on home rule -- and there is hope that we can prevail upon friendly members to strip the gun provision before final action on the budget.
But other restrictions imposed in past years still hang on our budget like dead albatrosses, some of them causing real harm to real people in the District. Among the most damaging are restrictions imposed in 1998 that hamstring our ability to adequately respond to the continuing crisis of HIV/AIDS in the District – where one out of 20 residents lives with HIV, the highest rate in the nation.
That year, Congress, led by then-Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, prohibited the District from implementing the ballot initiative to allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes, such as relieving the pain and suffering of AIDS victims. (The Barr Amendment at first prohibited the District from even counting the vote – it was nearly a year after the election before it was revealed that the measure was favored by 69 percent of D.C. voters).
An even more damaging restriction on the D.C. budget stemming from 1998 prohibits spending public funds for needle-exchange programs, a measure put forward by members of Congress who mistakenly believed that allowing intravenous drug users to turn in their dirty needles for clean, HIV-free ones somehow encourages people to use illegal narcotics. How many non-drug users, if handed a clean hypodermic needle, would immediately run out and buy heroin? While the privately funded needle-exchange program run by PreventionWorks! has carried on, the inability of the District to support the effort with tax dollars has limited the program’s reach. According to a report released in August by the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, needle-exchange programs receiving government funding are more effective at reducing HIV transmission because they are more likely to supply enough needles to meet demand as well as to provide a more comprehensive service network to prevent HIV infection by needle users.
Congress’s forcing the District to fight HIV/AIDS with one hand tied behind our backs shows that our colonial status is not only wrong in some abstract sense. It kills people. Today, HIV-infected needles; tomorrow, possibly a new flood of handguns – it’s all in a day’s work for our congressional overseers as they impose their idea of virtue on the captive city.
The people of the District need to seize every opportunity to build alliances to help us win full democratic rights – and such an opportunity is coming soon. On Nov. 5, fleets of buses packed with people living with HIV/AIDS will converge on Washington for five days of rallies, Capitol Hill visits, educational events and a concert on the Mall. While the Campaign to End AIDS, which is organizing the caravans, didn’t begin the effort with a D.C.-democracy message in mind, it might very well end with one. Organizers of the caravan have been working with local democracy activists, including the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition, and the events provide a unique opportunity to reach thousands of people who may not be aware of what’s happening here, but will be motivated to do something about it once they are.
Visit www.CampaignToEndAids.org for more information about the caravans. Let’s make sure members of the caravans go home prepared to demand that members of Congress stop interfering not only in the District’s effort to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, but also in all other matters that are none of their business. When it comes to HIV/AIDS in the District, colonialism kills; democracy saves.
Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in DC Coalition. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator