District lawmakers defied Congress on Wednesday, voting to appropriate more than $7 billion in local tax money themselves instead of waiting for Congress to approve the spending — as they have been required by law to do for decades through the federal budget process.
However, it is unlikely that D.C. residents will feel the effects of the District’s unprecedented challenge to its congressional overseers anytime soon.
The council’s decision to implement a disputed ballot initiative appeared to be headed for a protracted legal fight over whether the District can assert fiscal independence from Congress and spend its money more like states do.
With the courts involved, D.C. officials acknowledged that their revolt would do little immediately to halt conservative Republicans, who have threatened to use the first budget since their party regained control of Congress to defund liberal District laws on topics ranging from gun control to marijuana legalization.
And they got to work on that task Wednesday. Minutes before the D.C. Council voted to usurp Congress, House Republicans made public portions of their proposed budget that, among other details, call for outlawing sales of marijuana in the District despite a voter-approved referendum last year that legalized the substance for recreational use.
The federal budget would also maintain a ban on D.C. spending to help pay for abortions for low-income residents. And as early as Thursday, House Republicans are expected to pile on additional restrictions to cripple city gun-
control laws and to undo funding for the District’s health exchange created under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. A conservative group of House Republicans has also vowed to defund a local D.C. law that prohibits religious organizations from discriminating on the basis of employees’ reproductive decisions.
“You know what I think of Congress? They’re a bunch of idiots,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), lamenting that D.C. could not do more to block Congress until the court battle over budget autonomy is settled. “Congress is clearly going to do something that is going to offend all of us. We’re going to be really upset for a long time until we rise up and take back our city.”
More than half of the District’s $13 billion budget — and nearly all of its annual operating costs — is funded through taxes collected on D.C. residents and businesses. But the city’s decisions on how that money is spent remains subject to final approval by Congress, akin to the way a budget is approved for a federal agency.
D.C. lawmakers have for years attempted to untether the District’s budget from the federal one. The issue is frequently a rallying cry for advocates of statehood. The District has no vote in Congress over the budget that ultimately governs the District, which has a population larger than either Vermont or Wyoming.
Wednesday’s council vote was the latest chapter in the District’s decades-long fight to find a workaround. It fulfilled a measure known as the Budget Autonomy Act, which was passed by the D.C. Council in 2012 and approved overwhelmingly by voters a year later.
Under that measure, the D.C. Council claimed voters always had the right to amend the charter that Congress used to set up the District’s current form of government in 1973. The 2013 ballot measure amended that charter to say the District no longer needed to submit its budget to the White House for inclusion in the federal budget. Rather, it said, the District could pass a budget bill governing its own tax revenue as with any other local law.
The plan hit a roadblock when then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the District’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, refused to abide, calling it an illegal change to the Home Rule charter. A federal judge last year agreed, saying only Congress could relinquish its control over the District’s budget.
But Muriel E. Bowser (D), then the incoming mayor, withdrew administration opposition early this year, siding with the council and saying she wanted to press forward with challenging Congress for autonomy to spend the city’s roughly $7 billion in local tax revenue. In light of Bowser’s reversal, a federal appeals court vacated the earlier decision, which prompted the council to move forward on Wednesday.
One remaining problem for Bowser and the council is that the court victory came so late in the District’s budget process that, according to a spokesman, the mayor will have no choice but to submit the District’s entire budget for congressional review, as in years past. The mayor will also sign and the District will submit to Congress the second, identical version of its budget passed Wednesday by the council.
That will create an unprecedented situation on Capitol Hill in which two live versions of the District’s budget will be working their way through competing approval processes.
Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said they would consider the version passed Wednesday as District law as soon as it clears the 30-day review
period that Congress has to overturn any such law. (Congress is highly unlikely to bother because, in legal filings last year, it deemed D.C. budget autonomy invalid.)
At a news conference on Tuesday, Bowser said that asserting independence over the District’s revenue was important and that she believed the plan to pursue budget autonomy would prevail.
“I am a big proponent of doing something differently to get more autonomy for the residents of the District of Columbia,” she said.
DeWitt, who controls all District spending, has maintained that he will need a clear ruling from the courts to begin issuing checks under the alternate budget. At least for this year, however, legal experts said Bowser’s submission of the entire budget will mean any alterations by Congress will be final.
Mendelson, nonetheless, said he was optimistic and was more focused on what a judge would say about the District’s long-term budgeting authority than what Congress might do to interfere with city spending this year.
“This is a seminal day in the history of Home Rule,” he said in a statement. “While litigation continues, today’s vote moves the District forward.”