A two-centuries-old requirement that Congress vote to approve the District's budget, long opposed by elected city leaders and home rule advocates, would be abolished under bipartisan legislation that will be introduced today.
The change, sought by Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the House Government Reform Committee chairman, and committee member Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), would mark a first step toward budget autonomy and a historic restructuring of the capital city's relationship with the federal government.
The proposal would not end congressional oversight of District spending. But a draft of the bill obtained by The Washington Post contains changes to the city's Home Rule Charter of 1973 that would free city officials from needing to win passage for the locally raised portion of its budget -- about $5.4 billion of its $5.8 billion spending plan in 2003 -- by a separate vote from Congress in one of 13 appropriations bills that keep the government running each year.
In effect, the change would prevent District funds from being held hostage in partisan wrangling on the overall budget. This year, gridlock has extended well past November's elections and kept Congress from passing any nonmilitary federal spending entering the fifth month of the fiscal year.
For Norton and Davis -- who played key legislative roles in leading the District from the verge of bankruptcy and a $600 million deficit in 1995 by creating a federal control board and shaping a federal bailout two years later -- the new initiative marks a personal vindication.
"Next to voting rights and statehood, this is the most important benefit for the District that I've sought in my 13 years in the Congress," said Norton, who brought the issue to Davis and credited his deep familiarity with city concerns for rapid action.
"The bottom line is this city ought to have the right to spend its own money," said Davis, a former Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman who last month announced plans to play an expanded role in the District upon taking the helm of the panel overseeing government operations. While Congress must maintain its authority over the federal city, Davis said, "we want the District to be held responsible for its own actions, and the only way to do it is to give them some accountability."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) hailed the proposal as a vote of confidence in the city's fiscal stability, coming 18 months after the control board suspended operations. Williams announced last week that the city posted its sixth consecutive budget surplus and filled a $249 million cash reserve required by Congress several years ahead of schedule.
Davis gauged the chances of House passage as "excellent" and vowed to move the bill to the floor by May and seek a vote this year. He said he has spoken to Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, about including the idea in the president's budget to be announced this week and at least secured the White House's concurrence with the change.
A spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said it would be premature to comment.
Separately, a House official said the support of Davis and the District's Democratic delegate would make a narrowly crafted measure difficult to stop. Davis's stock is especially high now among GOP leaders because of his role as chief House fundraiser for the 2000 and 2002 campaigns.
The measure's fate in the Senate is murkier. Spokesmen for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and ranking Sen. Robert C. Byrd Jr. (D-W.Va.) -- an avowed defender of Congress's oversight of the District -- did not return telephone calls for comment.
Under the bill, District agencies could tap new money on time each Oct. 1, once 30 days had passed from the time a budget was approved by the mayor and D.C. Council and submitted to Congress for review.
Congress's money committees still would oversee city plans, and would enact an appropriations bill involving the balance of federal payments to the District. But lawmakers would have less time to intervene, especially if the District submitted its budget just before Congress's August recess. In a break from old habits, lawmakers could attach riders or other restrictions but only to separate legislation.
Another provision would suspend the measure if the District suffered a fiscal relapse and triggered any of several conditions that would revive the dormant control board.
The seven "deadly sins," as District and Hill officials call them, are defaulting on a loan, borrowing from the U.S. Treasury, running a cash deficit in any fiscal quarter and failing to meet a payroll, debt service reserve fund, interstate compact or pension payment.
District leaders and activists have argued for years that congressional budget approval is an unwarranted intrusion on local democracy imposed by lawmakers elected by faraway constituents.
The federal appropriations process adds months of uncertainty to city finances, Norton said, prompting Wall Street to lower the city's bond rating and thus raise its borrowing costs. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi said that the review costs staff time and forces the District to rely on longer-range, less reliable economic budget forecasts.
This year's federal spending impasse barred District schools from tapping $79 million in new funds.
If the bill passes, Norton and city officials said a next goal is to advance the start of the District's fiscal year three months to July 1, the same as Maryland and Virginia's, to coincide with administration of the school year.