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HOME RULE

Congress Looks at Giving Up Review of D.C. Laws

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

The District is the only city whose budget and laws must go through Congress before taking effect. Yesterday, the House began considering whether to change that system.

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D.C. officials testified at a hearing that the current system is burdensome and unfair -- resulting in long delays and increased costs for the city.

"We are simply asking for the ability to spend locally collected dollars without congressional approval," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) told the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia.

Brian K. Flowers, the city's general counsel, testified that about two-thirds of the bills adopted by the D.C. Council could be eliminated if the mandatory congressional review period were scrapped. That's because the city must pass emergency acts while waiting for the review period to expire.

The process "feels like a legislative circus," he complained.

Yesterday's hearing by the subcommittee, part of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, marked the first step in Congress's consideration of two bills that would grant the District budget and legislative autonomy.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has introduced the bills numerous times before, but yesterday marked the first time in 15 years that the House has taken up the issue. The next step is a subcommittee vote scheduled for June 21.

Supporters regard the bills as a long-overdue correction to provisions of the 1973 Home Rule Act, which gave the city self-government.

"The very definition of self-government is the ability to enact your own laws and budget," Norton said.

City officials spent much of yesterday's hearing defending their ability to manage their budget. They pointed to the city's strong recovery from the financial crisis of the mid-1990s, emphasizing the District's 10 straight years of balanced budgets. They also noted the institutional controls in place, such as an independent chief financial officer.

"The District of Columbia could never revert back to how the city was managed" at the time of the crisis, Fenty said.

Natwar M. Gandhi, the chief financial officer, testified that three-quarters of the city's budget, about $5.7 billion, comes from local revenue such as city taxes and fees. Those are the funds the District would get to spend without congressional approval under the bill.

Only a small fraction of the total budget -- about $120 million -- comes from federal payments appropriated for programs and projects unique to the District, Gandhi testified. The other $2 billion in the budget is made up of federal payments based on formulas for such programs as Medicaid, he said.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a sponsor of the budget autonomy bill, said that the District "should not be held hostage by needless delays in the congressional budget process." But he expressed reservations about the legislative autonomy bill, noting that Congress has changed only three of the 4,000 D.C. laws that have gone through the review period since 1973.

Although Congress has to approve the D.C. budget, it doesn't have to pass each D.C. law. But the bills must effectively sit in Congress for review periods of 30 to 60 "legislative" days -- that is, when Congress is in session. Those periods can translate into three or more months.


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