LAWYERS REPRESENTING the D.C. Council in its bid for budget autonomy have unearthed new research on the city’s history of home rule that promises interesting arguments when the case is heard by a federal appeals court in the fall. Whether the council will prevail in this internecine court fight with the mayor and the city’s chief fiscal officer remains to be seen. But the council and its attorneys certainly deserve credit for sparing no effort in trying to win this basic right for D.C. citizens.
At issue is a charter amendment passed by the council and ratified last year by D.C. voters that would change the budget process so that the city could spend local monies without a congressional appropriation. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the District’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, refused to abide by the amendment, citing advice from D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan that it was illegal and could expose the city and its employees to criminal and civil liability.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan agreed with Mr. Nathan’s position that only Congress could change the budget process, pointing to the legislative history of the 1973 Home Rule Act and a key passage that says nothing in the act “shall be construed as making any change in existing law, regulation, or basic procedure and practice” with regard to congressional approval of the District’s budget. But, as The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported, the council’s pro bono lawyers, Karen L. Dunn and Brian D. Netter, delved deeper into the legislative history for what they say is evidence that Congress aimed to leave the door open for the city to amend its budget process.
Buttressing that argument is an amicus brief filed by former members of Congress and congressional staffers who were involved in the drafting and passage of the D.C. Home Rule Act. “In the face of competing proposals, the House ultimately passed a compromise bill that did not provide the District with immediate control over its budget, but did grant the District broad power to amend its own Charter, including the budgetary provision,” reads the brief filed by former representatives Ronald Dellums, Fortney “Pete” Stark and Donald Fraser and former Capitol Hill staffers. Some notable legal names — former attorney general Peter J. Nickles, Yale law professor William Eskridge Jr. and several former presidents of the D.C. Bar — also filed briefs in support of the council’s position.
Whichever way the court decides, the cause of budget autonomy will have been strengthened. A win by the council would bring immediate relief if, as we would hope, there is no appeal from the administration. A loss would put renewed pressure on the leaders in Congress from both parties who say they favor budget autonomy to make it a reality.