April 1, 2013

THE DISTRICT of Columbia has the singular distinction — indignity is the better word — of having to get congressional approval before spending a penny of its local dollars. The lack of budget autonomy has persisted despite complaints from local officials, and agreement from national leaders in both parties, that it is unfair and impractical to deny D.C. a right that every other city in the country enjoys. But the District’s upcoming special election provides a critical opportunity to correct this long-standing injustice.

In addition to selecting a new, at-large member for the D.C. Council, voters on April 23 will decide a referendum aimed at giving the District more freedom to set its budget without congressional interference. Referendum 8 would amend the District’s Home Rule Charter to allow the city to spend locally raised funds prior to a congressional appropriation. Among the advantages are the ability for the D.C. government to set its own fiscal year, to continue to operate during federal shutdowns and to sell bonds at better rates.

The proposal is predicted to win but has stirred controversy because of an unorthodox approach that critics, including the District’s attorney general, say does an end-run around Congress. They say this raises questions about its constitutionality, and they worry that approval may provoke Congress to retaliate against the city.

We agree with proponents that these objections are not a reason for voters to oppose the measure. Separate legal analyses by DC Vote and the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which developed the referendum strategy over two years, conclude that control over the budget is not one of the things (like a commuter tax) that can’t be changed through the referendum process. Any legal challenge (and it’s unclear who would bring such an action) can and should properly be decided by the courts.

If voters approve the measure, it would go to Congress for a 35-day review period; while it would be hard to overturn (a joint resolution of disapproval by the House and Senate, signed by the president, would be required), Congress still would be able to weigh in. We would hope that lawmakers, particularly proponents of District budget autonomy who have been unable to get a clean bill approved, would respect the outcome of what Rep. José E. Serrano (N.Y), the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing the District’s budget, correctly called “democracy at its very core.”

April 23 is a chance for District voters to be heard. They should vote yes on Proposed Charter Amendment VIII.