D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt want people to think the threat to veto the D.C. Council’s 2015 budget, if the legislature adheres to the local Budget Autonomy Act, is all about protecting the city. Don’t believe that propaganda.
Their opposition is an extension of Attorney General Irvin Nathan’s mission to derail the act, thereby preserving the prerogatives of his former Capitol Hill bosses. (Nathan was previously general counsel to the House of Representatives.) The budget autonomy law, an amendment to the Home Rule Charter passed overwhelmingly by voters in a 2013 referendum, grants the city the power to spend its local revenue.
“We all have our biases; he has a bias — maybe subconsciously — to Congress,” council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told me, referring to Nathan. Mendelson said the council’s only choice was to file a lawsuit seeking clarity on the issue after the mayor threatened the veto.
Nathan’s spokesman Ted Gest said the agency has concluded that neither the council nor the voters can legally “divest Congress of its appropriations responsibilities.” He said Nathan “fully supports budget autonomy for the District” but believes “Congress must enact it to be lawful.”
Undoubtedly Nathan hopes the lawsuit, on which a federal judge is expected to rule this month, will prove him right. That might be a personal victory for him. But does he care that it would mean a loss for government workers and D.C. residents?
It’s not the first time Nathan has been confused about whom he represents. Last year, for example, as the council sought to protect elderly property owners from predatory tax lien buyers, the attorney general argued against the return of equity to those homeowners’ after expenses had been paid in those transactions.
I am no statehood enthusiast. But the council is right to push for greater legislative and financial independence. It’s not as if it is engaged in some seditious act. The autonomy law isn’t harmful to the federal government or the nation. It protects the District from falling victim to congressional and presidential spats, which often delay budget approval and cost the city millions of dollars.
Specifically, the act adjusts the District’s fiscal calendar and subjects its local budget to the standard congressional review — and not the whims of the federal appropriations process. Congress would continue, however, to appropriate federal dollars to the District in a separate budget, restricting spending where it deems, including attaching onerous riders. “Congress always has plenary rights,” said Mendelson.
Since 2012, Nathan has mounted a breathtaking campaign to kill the autonomy act. When the council ignored his assertions of its illegality, he then tried to stop the Board of Elections from placing it before voters for ratification. Behaving like an unabashed disciple of Chicken Little, he predicted Capitol Hill would come crashing down on the city. It hasn’t — even after the Government Accountability Office issued an opinion declaring the act had “no effect of law.” This month, Nathan upped the ante, pulling Gray and DeWitt into his fight.
Nathan could have gone to D.C. Superior Court last year to challenge the elections board’s decision, as was his right. I asked why he didn’t and whether he had deliberately provoked the council’s litigation. “We’re not going to say anything [on those] questions,” replied Gest.
The veto threat seems to contradict Gray’s own record of congressional defiance. In October, he stepped into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s face, asserting the District is “not a department of the federal government” while declaring the city would remain open during the shutdown, spending its money as it pleased.
Ultimately, Congress permitted the District to remain open and to spend its local tax dollars. Gray took a victory walk on national television. Interestingly, the argument successfully used then by Gray is the same one that underpins the autonomy act. Further, even this week, the mayor criticized a congressional committee for its plan to hold hearings on the city’s recently approved marijuana decriminalization law. Gray shows signs of political confusion.
Still, Mendelson said he doesn’t mind the lawsuit. “We think we’re right.” What’s more, the council felt compelled to defend not just the autonomy act but voters’ decision. “This is an important issue. This may be a civil rights issue.”
But the council may have permitted itself to be goaded into an unnecessary legal battle. After all, Congress already has granted the District the right to spend local dollars through September 2015, essentially providing, in practice, budget autonomy; it didn’t adjust the fiscal year or review process, however.
Gray and DeWitt could have tried lobbying Congress to expand that provision, possibly piloting a change in the fiscal year and review process. Instead, the mayor chose to join Nathan’s crusade, savaging, along the way, the District’s self-determination movement.
What is most appalling about all of this is that public money is being misused in the attorney general’s self-centered battle. Nathan wields a 700-person staff and a budget of more $100 million. He’s deploying his resources not against the enemies of D.C. residents but against the interests of D.C. residents — the very people paying for his operation and paying his salary.
There is one bright spot: Like the mayor, Nathan is a lame duck. Thankfully, he’ll be gone within the next eight months.