House committee approves Issa’s new District budget autonomy bill

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA - Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

A key House committee has approved a bill that would grant a measure of budget autonomy to the District, the latest step in the city’s long-running effort to win the ability to spend its own money freely.

The bill, introduced Tuesday night by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), would amend the D.C. Home Rule Act to let the District spend its own taxpayer funds at the start of the fiscal year without congressional approval if Congress has not yet passed a spending bill approving the city’s budget. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs, approved the bill Wednesday after just a few minutes of discussion.

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The legislation would also let the city set its own fiscal calendar -- the District, like the federal government, currently starts its fiscal year Oct. 1, but states typically begin their fiscal year July 1 to make it easier to plan school budgets. And the measure would allow D.C. to boost pay for its Chief Financial Officer, as the city is in the midst of searching for a replacement to retiring CFO Natwar M. Gandhi.

Issa has long said he supported the cause of granting spending freedom to the District. But he shelved an autonomy bill in 2011 at the request of city leaders because it also would have made permanent a ban on D.C. using its own money to fund abortions for low-income women. And a similar measure was scuttled in the Senate last year because of Republican efforts to attach language changing city laws governing abortions, guns and unions.

It’s not clear if or when Issa’s latest bill will reach the House floor, or whether supporters of budget autonomy would be able to fend off amendments on unrelated subjects.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said Issa’s bill “makes technical changes that the city has sought to improve its operations,” though she may seek some revisions going forward.

“I support the intent of the Chairman’s bill, but he and I have been in discussions, and he understands that my support is conditioned on an agreement yet to be reached on the final language of the bill,” Norton said.

Issa offered his bill three months after District voters approved a referendum granting budget autonomy to the city, though some critics on Capitol Hill and in city government — including D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan — have said the referendum may be unconstitutional because it usurps congressional authority.

The referendum technically will take effect after a review period of 35 legislative days, during which the House and Senate can pass a joint resolution disapproving of the measure. That period is set to expire in the coming days. Congress could pass a law at any time in the future nullifying the referendum if it decides to do so, though the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama are unlikely to support such a move.

The GOP-led House Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill for the District last week accompanied by a report that said the panel considered the referendum “an expression of the opinion of the residents, only, and without any authority to change or alter the existing relationship between Federal appropriations and the District.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Democrats, will take up its own version of the District spending bill Thursday that is not expected to include the same language.

 
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