House subcommittee approves bill promoting D.C. budget autonomy

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; B01

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.

With Republicans expected to make gains in the November midterm elections, Norton said she and Serrano think they need to act this year while Democrats hold big majorities in both chambers.

Since the Home Rule Charter was approved by Congress in 1973, the city's multibillion-dollar budget has been reviewed by Congress after being approved by the D.C. Council and mayor. It has been common practice for members of Congress to attach "riders" to the city budget to restrict spending of local tax dollars.

In the 1980s and '90s, Congress used the budget to block funding for various city initiatives, including domestic partnerships, medical marijuana dispensaries and a needle-exchange program. Democrats retook control of the House and Senate in 2007, and last year, the last of the restrictions were removed. If Republicans retake Congress, D.C. leaders fear that they will look to the budget to try to undo the city's new same-sex marriage law.

Norton notes that even if the District obtains full budget autonomy, Congress could interfere in local decision-making by attaching amendments to other bills that affect the District, such as efforts to link the city's gun-control laws to the proposed voting-rights bill this year.

But Norton said it is a far more strenuous and lengthy process.

"I can't say those things will never happen again, but the ready and convenient way that they have had just will not be there," Norton said.

Serrano's proposal also would allow the District to revise its budget process to allow for more accurate revenue projections. Currently, the council has to approve the budget by late May to give Congress time to act before the fiscal year starts Oct. 1. In years past, the lengthy process has interfered with efforts to start school in late August because some contracts had to be paid before Congress got around to approving the budget.

"If he succeeds, we should erect a statue in his honor," Catania said of Serrano.

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