A congressional committee voted Tuesday to nullify a ballot measure approved by D.C. voters and then declared that the District can never spend local tax dollars without congressional approval.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a bill to block the city from enacting a measure to allow the District to spend its own tax dollars without first getting approval from Congress. The measure had been ratified by 80 percent of voters in a 2013 special election, confirmed by a court and endorsed by President Obama.
But House Republicans said Tuesday that it violated the Constitution. Their bill, which has backing from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), could go to the full House as early as next week. It’s unclear whether it would be approved in the more closely divided Senate.
The 22-to-14 party-line vote marked a new level of animosity between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the District’s mostly Democratic leaders, who have been agitating for full statehood and voting representation in Congress.
Brian Netter, a constitutional expert and lawyer who represented the District in defending the ballot measure, called the committee’s vote “a huge, dramatic, potential compression of the District’s rights.”
The last time Congress affected city affairs as significantly was in 1995, when it installed a financial control board during a bankruptcy, he said. “Over the past 20 years, the trajectory has clearly been to give the District more rights of autonomy, not less,” he said.
In a split-screen moment, as House lawmakers were voting Tuesday, the D.C. Council was proceeding with the very act Congress was trying to prevent: approving a $13 billion budget, which it planned to implement, unless halted by a judge or an act of Congress.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the subcommittee with oversight of the District and the author of the bill, pledged to stop D.C. officials. He cited the Constitution, which gives Congress “supreme authority” over the federal district.
“It really comes back to the constitutional intent of our Founding Fathers,” Meadows said. “Whether you agree with local control or not, it doesn’t allow a local municipality to usurp the Constitution.”
But Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said the discussion of history was a smokescreen.
“This is about raw political power being imposed on American citizens who do not have a voting voice here in the U.S. Congress,” he said. “I wish folks on the other side of the aisle can understand the frustration and deep condescension that the people of the District of Columbia feel from this body. It’s not right.”
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said everyone in the country has a stake in what happens in the District, and, therefore, Congress should maintain ultimate control.
“This is the people’s city, and the people of South Carolina have almost as much vested here as the people who live here,” he said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting envoy to Congress, said there is a distinction between official Washington, with its monuments and memorials, and the rest of the city, which is home to 700,000 people.
“I deeply resent a [member of Congress] calling the District of Columbia the ‘nation’s city,’ ” she said. “The federal enclave belongs to the nation. There is a reason there is a difference between the ‘nation’s capital’ and the ‘District of Columbia.’ While Congress has complete authority over the District, it does not have complete authority over me because I live in the District of Columbia.”
The District’s population is larger than that of Vermont or Wyoming, and its residents pay more in federal taxes than their counterparts in 22 states. But the District remains a federal territory with no voting representation in Congress, and it must submit its annual spending plan to Congress as a federal agency does, even though the bulk of its finances comes from local taxes.
The requirement that the District submit its budget for approval greatly complicates city spending and affects matters ranging from the city’s bond ratings to its ability to open schools on time each fall.
If the District defies Congress and unilaterally implements its budget, city employees could be prosecuted for spending money that has not been appropriated by Congress, Meadows said.
At a news conference on the steps of the District’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) called the threats “absurd” and held out his hands in mock arrest.
“Sure, put me in handcuffs while I’m holding the court decision,” Mendelson said, referring to an April ruling by a D.C. Superior Court judge that backed the District’s position.
Norton alternated between anger and defiance during the debate over Meadows’s bill.
“Not only is the bill profoundly undemocratic, it would harm the finances and operations of the District,” she said. “The American people ought to be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves.”
The House committee’s vote essentially would erase the results of a 2013 special election in the District, in which more than 80 percent of voters approved the “budget autonomy” referendum, which allowed the city to amend its charter to spend tax revenue without congressional approval.
The budget autonomy amendment has since been challenged in the courts, with mixed results. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that it was invalid and could not change the city’s relationship with Congress.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has been campaigning to make the District the 51st state, said the sole purpose of Meadows’s bill is “to strike down the will of our local council, our legislators and, more importantly, the will of D.C. residents.”
The last time Congress targeted a measure approved by District voters was in 1998, when residents approved medical marijuana. Congress inserted a restriction in the federal budget that prevented the city from spending any money to implement the measure.
District election officials declined to even tally the vote for fear of running afoul of the congressional restriction, and a decade passed before a Democratic-controlled Congress dropped the ban and let the city legalize medical marijuana.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the tally of the House committee’s vote.