TWO PRESIDENTS and congressional leaders from both parties have recognized that it’s wrong that the District of Columbia lacks autonomy in allocating local tax dollars. Sadly, that support has not translated into action. So it’s about time that city officials take force the issue. They have little to lose and much to gain by giving city residents a voice in this important struggle.
Legislation proposed by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and endorsed by the council’s other 12 members would put to a citywide referendum a change in the Home Rule Charter amending the budget process. Instead of the city’s budget being part of the congressional appropriations process, requiring affirmative approval, it would automatically go into effect if not overturned by Congress during a 30-day review period. The strategem of using a little-known provision of the Home Rule Charter to accomplish what Congress has failed to do was developed by the activist groups DC Vote and the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
The plan is controversial, prompting a guarded reaction from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who cite questions about the legality of the referendum approach and concern about sabotaging the effort to get Congress to pass a bill. Nothing prevents the city from pursuing a Capitol Hill strategy while putting the issue before voters, and a resounding endorsement from D.C. voters might even help that effort.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee that oversees the District, favors budget autonomy but hasn’t been able to get a bill free of noxious riders. A referendum, if approved by voters, would produce a clean measure that would go to Congress for a 35-day review period; overturning it would require a joint resolution of disapproval by the House and Senate, signed by the president. Surely, those who proclaim their support for budget autonomy should see the appeal of D.C. citizens doing the heavy lifting?
Just as the failed push for voting rights entered uncharted legal territory, concerns have been raised — including by the city’s attorney general — about the plan’s legality. But supporters of the referendum approach say that they have consulted experts who attest to its legal soundness. As DC Appleseed’s Walter Smith told The Post, it’s hard to see how the effort can be construed as an end run around Congress, since Congress still would have final say over the city’s budget through the 30-day review period.
The real beauty of the referendum was eloquently summed up by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the city’s budget. “This is democracy at its very core,” he said in a statement. “The process that they have laid out is transparent and fair, and should be respected by Congress once it has taken place.”