To much media attention, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) addressed a crowd at Howard University this morning, devoting the bulk of his remarks to explaining the appeal of the Republican Party message (particularly his libertarian brand thereof) to African Americans.
But when he took questions from the audience, the first query wasn’t about GOP messaging, but rather about why Paul played a role in halting a bill last year that would have allowed the District of Columbia greater freedom from Congress to spend its budget. The question came from Joshua Matfess, a student at American University. (You can watch the exchange at C-SPAN, starting at 24:00.)
“You want a government that leaves you alone, and you’ve been one of the fiercest opponents of federal interference with local autonomy and local rights, so how can you justify killing last year’s budget autonomy bill and interfering with the local legislation of our locally elected government?” Matfess asked.
The question echoing the talking points of D.C. voting rights activists. In a release sent before the speech, D.C. Vote called Paul a “Big Government Bully” and accused him of “[s]tunning hypocrisy” for supporting a strong congressional role in local D.C. affairs while he argues against a muscular federal government in almost every other context.
Paul’s response to the question was twofold. First, he lodged a procedural objection: “I didn’t kill any D.C. autonomy bill. They could have had a vote at any point at time. … I put on amendments that they did not want to vote on, so they perceived that as killing the bill. … The Democrat majority could have easily voted mine down, but they didn’t choose to vote on them.”
Yes, amendments alone cannot kill a bill. But the amendments — which would have allowed the concealed carrying of firearms, reinforced a ban on government funding of abortions and prohibited requiring union membership as a condition of employment — dealt with uncomfortable issues for moderate Democrats in an election year and certainly could not have been “easily” voted down in a closely divided Senate.
Paul also commented on the substance of budget autonomy: “I’m of two minds,” he said. “Do I think maybe D.C. could have more autonomy? Maybe. But I also know that the Constitution put D.C. under Congress’s purview and that we give D.C. money from the rest of the country from the tax receipts. … It’s a responsibility of the Constitution and a budgetary responsibility that we have oversight on the money that we spend from the U.S. Treasury in D.C. So I think it is a tough road to walk, but I’m willing to look at budgetary authority and see if we can come to a resolution.”
Those comments indicate that Paul might have an incomplete understanding of what precisely the D.C. budget autonomy proposal would do. The bill would not obstruct Congress from putting any restriction it wants on the federal money the city gets every year; it would, however, give the city more freedom to spend the two-thirds of its total revenue that is generated locally — from property, income, sales and other taxes that Congress doesn’t touch.
Paul may have an opportunity to revisit the issue in the coming months: If D.C. voters ratify the proposed budget autonomy amendment in a referendum on April 23, as expected, the proposal will go to Congress for a review period.