Congressional Democrats have a chance to push D.C. budget autonomy

Monday, December 6, 2010; 7:55 PM

DEMOCRATIC congressional leaders profess commitment to equal rights for D.C. residents. They chalk up their failure to deliver on voting rights to having been outmaneuvered by Republicans and a wily gun lobby, not to any lack of commitment on the issue.

If that is indeed the case, there should be no reason why Democrats wouldn't take advantage of the final days of their majority to address an issue second in importance only to voting rights for the District: budget autonomy. Yet it remains to be seen whether the District is again to be disappointed by broken promises.

As things stand, the District cannot spend even its own money without congressional and presidential approval. This is worse than a humiliation; city programs often get tangled in and delayed by the congressional appropriations process. It's astoundingthat an institution unable, as was the case this year, to do its own job by passing a national budget would nonetheless refuse to cede control over whether, as an example, local D.C. tax dollars can be spent on needle-exchange programs.

As the House and Senate confer on possible solutions to deal with 2011 appropriations, they should include language to let the District manage its own resources. Instead of having to wait six months or more for congressional approval, the city should be able to implement its budget for locally collected funds immediately. This would allow the District, like most states, to begin its fiscal year sensibly in the summer, rather than a month after the school year opens.

No doubt Democrats will face opposition from some Republicans, many of whom regrettably have been less inclined to acknowledge, much less stand up for, the rights of D.C. residents. But, as D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has pointed out, there has been bipartisan support in the past for budget autonomy. Most notably, President George W. Bush supported the idea in his fiscal 2004-06 budgets.

It may be a while before District residents get the representation in Congress that every citizen should have. At the least, they should win the authority to manage their own money and enact their own laws without meddling from above.

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