There was radio silence Monday from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) for reporters seeking her opinion of a new strategy endorsed by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) to secure D.C. budget autonomy from Congress through a voter referendum.
Today, Norton issued a statement giving something well short of an endorsement of the strategy, which holds the promise of securing a compromise-free path to budget freedom but runs the risk of legally backfiring and/or annoying the congressional allies Norton has been working with to get a budget autonomy bill through Congress.
While noting that she shares the “frustration at sending the city’s local budget to a Congress that has no part in raising the city’s local revenue,” Norton said in the statement that she “briefed the Mayor and Council Chairman on the legal and institutional issues and risks” of the proposal.
“In light of these issues and increasing Republican and Democratic support for budget autonomy,” she wrote, “we will continue to work with our allies in the House and Senate to pass a budget autonomy bill.”
That can be charitably translated from political statement-speak as “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has been similarly lukewarm in his response.
Referendum advocates have been careful to portray this as a “two-track approach,” leaving Norton free to pursue her efforts to secure budget autonomy through normal channels.
But on the council and in the activist community, there is little optimism that Congress will pass a budget autonomy bill free of the noxious amendments that have fouled earlier attempts to get D.C.-related legislation through Congress.
Hence the desire to push the envelope a bit, using a legal interpretation that activists acknowledge is far from a slam dunk.
“All civil rights struggles have been at the edge of legal theory,” D.C. Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said Monday. “If we were worried about whether we would lose in court, we wouldn’t have done any of the things we’ve done in the past 10 years.” That, he noted, includes an effort to have Congress pass a bill granting the city a voting member of the House of Representatives, which some legal scholars considered unconstitutional.
Beyond the legal vagaries, it’s also notable for being the most confrontational strategy the District has seized since the late 1990s, when activists sued for voting rights on equal protection grounds.
Should the referendum proposal gain the council’s approval (all 12 members signed on as co-introducers Tuesday), voters approve the plan next spring, and it passes a 35-day congressional review period, then budget autonomy would be reality.
But it would be subject to a court challenge — which could come from the Justice Department or Congress itself, according to a legal memo prepared for D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan — setting up a high-stakes court battle with the federal government over the District’s statutory and constitutional rights.
That, of course, would not be a bad thing from the activists’ perspective — without confrontation, it’s hard to get D.C. voting rights issues on the national agenda. But Norton and Gray are clearly wary that the referendum effort will mean the demise of their unquestionably legally kosher effort to get budget autonomy though Congress.
For the time being, the District will be playing “good cop, bad cop” on budget autonomy. The council and the activists will press the referendum, while Norton and Gray play the congressional game. We’ll see who has more success.