Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has written about District autonomy, also questioned the strategy.
“The congressional review period was designed for standard measures of self-governance,” Turley said. “It was not contemplated that the charter itself would be changed through this standard legislative means. I expect there would be many people in Congress that would take a dim view of that interpretation.”
Walter Smith, D.C. Appleseed’s director, said his group and attorneys it has consulted think the District has the power to free its local tax dollars from congressional oversight.
“I think a lot of people are unaware of just how broad the council’s authority is to amend the [charter],” Smith said. While the city could not, for instance, end congressional review of its laws or impose a commuter tax, he said, “the budget process is not one of the areas that’s off limits — it’s just as simple as that.”
Aside from the legal questions, the political considerations could be troublesome. Gray and Norton balked this year when presented with the strategy, according to two people familiar with the situation, leading to a delay in its rollout. Asked about the proposal Monday, Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said only, “The mayor supports budget autonomy.” A spokesman for Norton did not respond to a request for comment.
A Republican congressional aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the situation said the strategy could send a counterproductive message to the Hill.
“If there’s this effort to basically do an end-run around Congress . . . it will certainly complicate the argument within Congress on whether the District can be trusted with this authority,” the aide said.
Smith rejected that notion: “This can’t be an end run, because at the end of the day, because of the Constitution, Congress always has the final say.”
Should the council pass the bill before the current term ends in December, voters could see the question on the ballot in the spring — during a special election to fill the at-large council seat Mendelson is expected to vacate after his likely November election as chairman.