Rep. Jose E. Serrano's welcome push for D.C. budget autonomy

Thursday, August 5, 2010

ONE OF THE indignities regularly inflicted on the District has been congressional interference in how the city spends its own funds. Thankfully, House Democrats last year made sure there was no meddling with the city's budget, eliminating riders that prevented spending on needle-exchange and medical marijuana programs, among others. Now comes an even more welcome development: a move to give the District full autonomy over how it spends local dollars.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) is leading an effort to eliminate Congress's role in approving the city's budget. Under Mr. Serrano's bill, approved last week by the financial services and government appropriations subcommittee that he chairs, the city would be able to implement its budget for locally collected funds immediately rather than waiting six months or more for congressional approval. The bill, which would take effect with the 2012 fiscal year, still must clear some significant hurdles: committee and floor votes in the House and a conference with the Senate. But Mr. Serrano and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) have expressed confidence about the measure's prospects.

There are clear practical advantages for the city in having budget autonomy. In the past, congressional delays have stalled implementation of new programs and affected the city's borrowing. The city doesn't have the flexibility to respond to changing needs because mid-year budget allocations literally require an act of Congress. More important, though, than the practical considerations is giving the District a right enjoyed by every other local government. Even the U.S. territories don't have to get congressional permission to spend their own money.

Mr. Serrano said it best when he told us how "ironic, dramatic and painful" it was to see the residents of the nation's capital treated as second-class citizens. Of course, even if this measure is enacted, Congress can use its other powers to interfere in local matters. But budget autonomy would be another important step in giving the people of Washington the rights they deserve.

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