House subcommittee approves bill promoting D.C. budget autonomy

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010

House Democrats are pushing this year to give the District full control over how it budgets and spends city revenue, severely limiting opportunities for Congress to intervene in local decisions such as support for same-sex marriage, needle-exchange programs and medical marijuana.

In what would be a significant milestone in the city's quest for greater autonomy, Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) attached language Thursday evening to the city's proposed fiscal 2011 budget that would remove Congress from the process after this year.

Congress would have the power to enact laws affecting the District and block legislation approved by the D.C. Council, and it would have oversight of federal money earmarked for the city. But Serrano, a member of the Appropriations Committee and chairman of the subcommittee that handles the District's budget, said the House and Senate would no longer have the power to dictate whether the city can spend local funds on controversial policies.

"We can't run away from the fact that the Constitution speaks of certain federal supervision of D.C., but what has happened over the years is the D.C. budget has been used as a playground for others' social and political beliefs," Serrano said. "Everything looks pretty good to allow, going forward, the District of Columbia to handle its own local funds without having to check with Congress."

Over some Republican opposition, the subcommittee approved giving the city budget autonomy when it marked up the city's 2011 budget Thursday evening.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said Serrano's proposal would be "the biggest advance in home rule in 30 years" if it became law.

"It's home rule 2.0," Catania said. "It would be an incredible step forward for our local government."

Commenting on the bill's prospects, Serrano said he has received private assurances from House Democratic leaders that they are ready to give the District more control over its budget.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also voted on the city budget Thursday and did not include Serrano's proposal. But Serrano and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who has been pushing for years for local budget autonomy, said they are optimistic that the House's language can be approved in conference committee this fall.

A spokesman for Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the District's budget, declined to comment until the senator could review Serrano's plan.

If successful, the proposal could be a big consolation prize for city leaders and residents disappointed that repeated attempts to grant the District voting rights have failed.

"I think this is going to work, and this is just below statehood and voting rights," Norton said.

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