D.C. Council to vote on budget autonomy plan

November 9, 2012

The D.C. Council will vote next month on whether to bring to a referendum a proposal that would bypass Congress and give the city control over how it raises and spends local tax dollars, Chairman Phil Mendelson said Friday.

Mendelson’s statement came at the end of a council hearing during which broad support was expressed for amending the city charter to remove the city budget from the annual congressional appropriations process.

Instead of being tied to the federal budget, which makes the District vulnerable to congressional restrictions, the city’s annual spending plan would be approved by the mayor and council, just as countless other bills are.

Mendelson (D) is pushing ahead with the referendum even though neither Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) nor Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) appears enthusiastic about the proposal, first suggested by the advocacy groups D.C. Vote and D.C. Appelseed Center for Law and Justice.

Norton and Gray have worked to get Congress to approve budget autonomy, which would avoid legal questions about whether the District has the authority to claim budget authority for itself.

“For me, there are two issues: What are the legal arguments for and against?” said Mendelson, who added that “there is compelling proof we can do this.”

During the hearing, the proposal won the backing of former U.S. representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who has supported greater autonomy for the District.

Davis said the District is on strong legal and political footing to proceed without congressional authorization. If Congress objected, Davis said, it could still squash the effort. Congress could also overturn any future D.C. Council budget decision by enacting legislation, Davis said.

“This is hardly an act of defiance that’s a stick in the eye of Congress,” Davis said. “Basically, you are carrying out, in the Home Rule Charter, something other cities have. If Congress doesn’t like it, they can come back and overturn it.”

The council’s general counsel also signed off on the plan, concluding that the Home Rule Charter does not require that Congress affirmatively authorize city spending.

But some activists are questioning the proposal, arguing that it distracts from the District’s broader goal of D.C. statehood and could tempt Congress to become more aggressive in its oversight of the District.

“This measure and partial solutions are no more than distractions,” said Michael D. Brown, a D.C. shadow senator. “It’s time for us to come together and fight for statehood.”

Mendelson countered, “I believe an-all-or-nothing approach will lead to nothing.”

If approved by the council, the referendum would probably be held in the spring, appearing on the ballot with a special election for a citywide council seat.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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