D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has trumpeted a federal appeals court’s decision not to take up a lawsuit questioning city leaders’ authority to enact a budget without the rigorous congressional scrutiny they have long sought to escape.
But whether the court’s ruling last week is a milestone in the District’s long quest for independence may test Bowser’s willingness to challenge Congress’s authority, as she did earlier this year when enacting marijuana legalization despite criticism from federal lawmakers.
Even as Bowser (D) declared victory after Wednesday’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, other District officials questioned whether the decision was as conclusive as the mayor claimed. The ruling, they said, turned over to a lower court the question of whether the city can enact its own budget, as more than 80 percent of the District’s electorate chose in a 2013 referendum.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, said the court’s decision was “not decisive” and cautioned the council against adopting a budget that assumes the D.C. Budget Autonomy Act has taken effect.
“There’s no victory here,” Evans said. “The council has to tread carefully because we do not want to pass a budget that turns out to be illegal. If we pass a budget using budget autonomy, which we claim as the law, and it turns out not to be the law, then the budget is invalid.”
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) described the ruling as “murky,” saying the question won’t be resolved until the D.C. Superior Court issues a decision. “I think it’s a positive step, but I don’t know if I’m declaring victory yet,” he said.
Following the court’s ruling, Bowser’s team released a statement that was headlined, “Mayor Bowser Wins Biggest Victory for District Autonomy Since the End of the Control Board,” a reference to when the federal Financial Control Board ceased monitoring the city’s finances 14 years ago.
Michael Czin, Bowser’s spokesman, said in an interview that the District’s right to enact its own budget is “the law of the land, [which] should be followed by all public officials.”
Bowser herself at first called the court’s decision a “significant milestone.”
On Thursday, however, she appeared to temper her enthusiasm, saying she and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) would consult their lawyers “to decide a path forward.”
And by Friday, Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt said that after long discussions with Bowser, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine and Mendelson, all were in agreement that budget autonomy was still a work in progress.
“As of right now, it’s still a live case in [D.C.] Superior Court. So we’re working through what all that means,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt said that he shares the others’ commitment to achieving budget autonomy, arguing that an autonomous budget process would shield the District’s economy and taxpayers from the financial risks posed by federal government shutdowns — to which it is currently vulnerable.
But that autonomy is not necessarily at hand, he said.
“Congress could always step in, at some point, to this process,” DeWitt conceded. “We could all find a way to get clarity on the legality, or a judge could rule positively, but Congress could always step in.”
DeWitt and Racine’s initial response to the court ruling — that the Budget Autonomy Act “remains in doubt ” — sparked questions of whether a showdown was coming between them and the mayor and council. The chief
financial officer is the only official who can write checks to implement the District’s budget spending, but he has said he would refuse to do so if he views the legislation governing that process to be illegal.
DeWitt on Friday said that all of the parties had agreed to work together to make sure that such a thing does not happen.
“We will work together to figure this out so there’s no negative impact,” he said.
The District’s right to adopt its own budget is a part of the city’s long-standing campaign for self-determination and statehood, one that has been championed by Bowser in the same manner as her predecessors.
District voters supported budget autonomy in a 2013 referendum. But then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray questioned the legality of the District asserting its authority without congressional approval.
The mayor and council ended up in D.C. Superior Court, where a judge invalidated the Budget Autonomy Act.
The council appealed the decision, which led to last week’s ruling.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which oversees the District budget, declined to comment on the court’s action.
But Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who criticized the District for legalizing marijuana earlier this year, said that Wednesday’s decision does not negate congressional approval of the city’s finances.
“This doesn’t change the U.S. Constitution or the Home Rule Act, which establish the authority and responsibility of Congress to provide legislative oversight over the District,” Harris said in a statement. Nor do House Republicans have much interest in changing that.
Under the current law, the city’s budget, including $7 billion in locally generated tax revenue, must be approved by Congress, a process during which Republican lawmakers in the past have attacked D.C. laws on abortion coverage and gun rights.
But with budget autonomy, the city would pass its own budget, which then would be submitted to Congress for a 30-day review, as is the case with all laws passed by the D.C. Council.
Even with budget autonomy, the District would not be impervious to congressional meddling. But the hurdles for congressional lawmakers would be higher.