Budget deal reminds D.C. that Congress is still in charge

April 9, 2011

If the government had shut down at 12:01 a.m., no region of the United States would have suffered more than the District. City services would have been curtailed, trash uncollected, tourist dollars lost and thousands of residents with federal jobs would have faced potential furloughs.

And although it averted a shutdown, the budget deal agreed to Friday night by Congress and the White House appears to be — at best — a mixed blessing for the District.

The measure contains at least one policy rider — a ban on District government-funded abortions — considered onerous by city leaders, as well as the renewal of a controversial private-school voucher plan that has divided local officials. It could end up cutting from the city’s budget.

And the whole exercise served as a stark reminder that the District has precious little control over its finances.

“While I am relieved that Congress reached an agreement so that our employees can work and city services can continue, I am also angry and extremely disappointed that the District of Columbia, once again, suffered collateral damage amidst partisan bickering,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said in a statement issued after the deal was completed.

Referring to the ban on the District using its own funds to provide abortion services and the renewal of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Gray said that “the District of Columbia’s right to govern itself has, once again, been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. This is ludicrous. Hypocrisy is alive and well.”

The final agreement could end up cutting from the federal government’s annual payments to the District; the version of the measure that passed the House in February cut about $80 million from D.C. courts, school improvements and other programs. The deal could also include a ban on the District using its own funds for needle-exchange programs.

Those details will be negotiated in the coming days by members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

The District has more budget autonomy now than it did as recently as a decade ago, when the congressionally mandated financial control board ruled the city’s pocketbook. Yet because even the District’s locally raised tax money has to be appropriated back to it by Congress, the city faced the prospect of having to curtail local government functions in the event of a shutdown.

As Gray put it, “no other state or jurisdiction had to endure the hardship of planning to shut down a municipal government, thus spending valuable resources and personnel on a process that never should have been necessary. The United States Congress ought to do what is morally right and grant the residents of the District of Columbia — who pay more than $5 billion in taxes annually — the right of full citizenship and budget autonomy.”

As the threat of a shutdown loomed larger on the horizon, Del. Eleanor   Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) tried repeatedly to persuade House Republican leaders to move her legislation that would have given the District the authority to spend its own money in the event of a shutdown.Rebuffed, she tried without success to attach the measure as an amendment to a series of unrelated bills.

Although they never explained publicly why they were unwilling to move Norton’s measure, Republican leaders appeared wary of approving any legislation addressing what would happen in the event of a shutdown, also choosing not to pass popular measures that would have denied lawmakers pay. Passing such a measure, some in the GOP feared, could have made it look as though the party wanted a shutdown.

As on all legislative matters, Norton was hampered by her lack of a vote on the House floor. And the District was particularly hobbled by its lack of representation in the Senate.

Late Friday night, both the House and Senate quickly approved a stopgap measure to keep the government funded for one more week while the final spending deal is being drafted and passed. Although Norton couldn’t have derailed that train in the House, in the other chamber any one of 100 senators could have blocked its immediate consideration by objecting to unanimous consent.

If the District had senators, they could have chosen to stall the short-term measure as a protest against the inclusion of unwanted riders in the final deal. Instead, the budget deal appears headed for passage, and the D.C. abortion ban was conceded by President Obama and his fellow Democrats as an apparent trade-off for Republicans’ willingness to drop their insistence on cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

“We are in great danger of becoming bargained as we feared, despite my conversation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a few days ago, and the many conversations I have had with the administration,” Norton said roughly an hour before the final deal was announced.

Ilir Zherka, the head of the voting-rights advocacy group DC Vote, said that although Republicans might be the primary backers of these provisions, city residents were growing tired of being sacrificed in negotiations by supposedly sympathetic Democrats.

“Why don’t Senator [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and President Obama say, ‘The District is out of this; D.C. has nothing to do with it’?” Zherka said. “Our allies take the District of Columbia for granted.”

In an e-mail Saturday to supporters titled “Now Is the Time to Take to the Streets,” DC Vote said it would stage a rally against the budget deal outside the Hart Senate Office Building on Monday evening.

The trade-off drew a mixed response from groups that support abortion rights.

NARAL Pro-Choice New York said in a statement that although the group “is relieved that funding for Planned Parenthood and Title X clinics were rightfully preserved in the budget negotiations, we are appalled that poor women were used as bargaining chips in this budget process and that the women of Washington, D.C., are ultimately left to bear the cost. To that end, we join the many who are showing support for D.C. women and will make a donation to the D.C. Abortion Fund.”

Anti-abortion advocates, meanwhile, will welcome the reimposition of the D.C. ban. “The Corner,” the blog of the conservative magazine National Review, noted this week that many prominent Democrats have voted in the past for legislation that included the District prohibition, adding: “Restoring the ban would not be a revolutionary policy shift, but a return to the status quo of many years.”

The local reactions to the inclusion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Fund in the deal are likely to be more varied. The agreement includes the enactment into law of the SOAR Act, a measure authored by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) that would renew and expand the private-school voucher program for five more years. The program had been closed to new applicants by congressional Democrats in 2009.

That program long has divided local leaders. Norton and Gray are opposed, but City Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) and former mayors Anthony A. Williams (D) and Marion Barry (D) support it. The Washington Teachers’ Union strongly opposes the program, but parents and students who have participated in it are outspoken in their desire to see it continue.

Regardless of the scholarships’ merits, the decision on whether to renew them rests solely with Congress, not with anyone elected by District voters. Democrats noted that fact repeatedly when the SOAR Act was debated in the House last month.

But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight panel, made a point of reminding Democrats during debate on the scholarship program in March that the Constitution gives Congress the authority “to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over” the District.

The District does have some allies in Congress. Last week, Rep. Jose E. Serrano (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that controls D.C. funding, urged his colleagues not to use the city as a pawn.

“I fail to see how restricting the District from spending locally derived revenue on abortion has anything to do with the current fight over government-wide spending levels,” Serrano said. “I believe we are seeing a return to the bad old days where, in order to look strong on a particular issue, Congress would impose a restriction on D.C.’s local funds, without doing anything similar for any other community in the nation.”

But when the final deal was cut Friday night, Serrano — like every District leader and almost every lawmaker other than House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Reid and Obama — wasn’t in the room.

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