Highlight on the District of Columbia: Congress fails to stop D.C. Death with Dignity law

Although the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted to advance a resolution (H.J. Res. 27) that would nullify the District of Columbia’s Death with Dignity Act (D.C. ACT 21-577), the House failed to act on the resolution in time to block the law from becoming effective. Under the Constitution, D.C. is a federal district under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress; since the 1973 District of Columbia Home Rule Act (P.L. 93-198), however, certain powers were granted to the city council and mayor, while Congress retained the authority to review all legislation passed by the council and imposed other restrictions. Bills passed by the council and signed by the mayor must be sent to Congress; they become law if Congress fails to block the law within 30 legislative working days.

Death with Dignity Act

 D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act–like similar laws passed in the states of California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington–legalizes physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill residents of the District who retain the ability to make and communicate health care decisions to health care providers and who complete certain required steps. Under the Act, individuals who are terminally ill may request life-ending medication from a physician, though no health care provider is required to prescribe or dispense life-ending medication even if the individual qualifies. To qualify, individuals must:

  • in the opinion of a court or the patient’s attending physician, consulting physician, psychiatrist, or
    psychologist, have the ability to make and communicate health care decisions to health care
  • be a resident of the District of Columbia;
  • have an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months; and
  • voluntarily make two oral requests and one written request in the presence of witnesses.

The Act also imposes requirements upon physicians, including providing the individual with certain information to ensure informed consent, and making referrals, recommendations, and counseling.

The bill was first introduced in January 2015, and a public hearing was held in July of that year. In November 2016, the City Council passed the bill by a vote of 11 to 2, and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) signed it in December. It provided for an effective date immediately following the 30-day Congressional review period.

Congressional action

The term “Legislative Days” is a term of art. According to the Congressional Research Service:

In context of the daily activities of Congress, any calendar day on which a chamber is in session may be called a (calendar) “day of session.” A legislative day, by contrast, continues until the chamber adjourns. A session that continues into a second calendar day without adjourning still constitutes only one legislative day, but if a chamber adjourns, then reconvenes later on the same day, the single day of session includes two legislative days. Conversely, if a chamber recesses and then reconvenes on the same day, the same day of session and the same legislative day both continue. Finally, when a chamber recesses overnight, instead of adjourning, although a new calendar day of session begins when it reconvenes, the same legislative day continues.

The bill was transmitted to Congress on January 6, 2017, three days after the 115th Congress was sworn in. H.J. Res. 27 was introduced on January 12 by sponsor Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), and referred to the Oversight Committee. On February 13, 2017, the Committee voted to advance the resolution to consideration before the full House.

By the D.C. City Council’s determination, the Congressional review period for the Death with Dignity Act ended on February 18, 2017; despite the Committee’s advancement, the House failed to bring the resolution to a floor vote before the review period ended. To succeed in disapproval of a D.C. law, such resolutions must pass both Houses of Congress–though only by a simple majority and therefore not subject to Senate filibuster–and be signed by the President.