A divided House of Representatives dealt a blow to the District’s attempt at self-government Wednesday by voting to nullify a D.C. ballot measure that allowed the city to spend local tax dollars without congressional approval.
The House voted 240 to 179 to strike down the 2013 ballot measure, saying the District overstepped its legal authority — and the U.S. Constitution — by trying to excise Congress from the city’s budget process.
Two Democrats, Reps. Jim Costa (Calif.) and Brad Ashford (Neb.), sided with Republicans to pass the bill, which also forbids the city to take any future action that alters its relationship with Congress. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said the bill was needed because “the D.C. government is running fast and loose with the Constitution,” which grants Congress authority over the nation’s capital. “The current D.C. government needs to be reined in,” Ryan wrote in a statement. “We will not allow Congress and the Constitution to be undermined.”
The vote brought months of simmering tensions between District leaders and Congress’s Republican majority to a boil on the House floor — and brought relations between Congress and its host city to perhaps their lowest point in recent years.
The District’s nonvoting House member, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, led Democrats in blasting Republicans as “despots” and “hypocrites” and accused them of running the nation’s capital as a “plantation” where 700,000 residents live without the power to decide their own matters.
At issue is a ballot measure — approved overwhelmingly by D.C. voters — that said the city has a right to spend its own tax dollars as it wishes, much the way the 50 states do.
The measure, which had the backing of a D.C. Superior Court judge, allowed the District to spend its $13 billion budget — comprised mostly of local revenue — without first submitting it to Congress as part of the federal budget.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led the floor fight for the bill and said it was rooted in the Constitution.
In an interview, he advised Democrats in the District and elsewhere agitating for statehood to attach the city’s residential neighborhoods to Maryland if they want the same rights as a state.
“D.C. is not a state,” he said. “And statehood is not going to happen on my watch.”
One after another, Republicans cited the specific article, section and clause of the Constitution that grants Congress “exclusive authority” over the workings of the federal district.
But Democrats pushed back, saying that times change and Congress needs to adapt to the fact that a district carved from swampland with few residents is now a major metropolis.
“The same Constitution protected slavery and said certain people of color were worth three-fifths . . . ,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “Same Constitution. But we changed it. . . . The fact that you exercise your will over an entire city just because you can does not make it right or noble. In fact, if we follow the logic of my friends of the other side, why not take over? Let’s do rezoning. Let’s do emergency preparedness. Let’s run the EMT and the fire department. Let’s take over mental-health services. Why go only halfway? I’m curious. Why is it only the budget?”
Democratic Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the bill an exercise in hypocrisy on the part of Republicans. “We’re witnessing the party that proclaims itself to be the champion of local autonomy and less federal involvement in local affairs . . . do exactly the opposite,” he said.
Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said that Republicans “use Washington as the place to manifest their discontent or desire” on social and budget issues they can’t control even in their home states, he said.
Ryan cited “real consequences” to giving D.C. budget freedom. “The D.C. government wants to use revenues to fund abortions in the District. House Republicans will not stand for that,” he said.
Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.) noted it was as recently as the 1990s when Congress had to bail out the District from financial distress under Mayor Marion Barry.
And Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the author of the bill, said the District wouldn’t have achieved its current financial health without its special reliance on Congress.
“If, indeed, everything is turning up roses, it is indeed the status quo . . . that truly has the authority rested and vested here in this esteemed body” to oversee District finances, he said.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, said he believed that D.C. officials did not have the legal authority to spend their own tax dollars. But the reaction on Capitol Hill marks a new low in the relationship between the District’s Democratic leaders and their Republican overseers in Congress, he said.
“It’s positively toxic,” he said.
In recent weeks, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had cast the showdown with Congress as a first step toward making the nation’s capital the 51st state. The District has a larger population than Vermont’s or Wyoming’s, and its residents pay more in federal taxes than those in 22 states.
If the House bill becomes law, it “shakes the foundation” of home rule, Norton said. If the Senate passes the bill, it will be the only time since the city won partial home rule in 1973 that Congress has acted to repeal a D.C. law retroactively.
“If you never felt like a despot before, I hope that side of the aisle understands what it feels and looks like now,” Norton said Wednesday, pointing to Republicans on the House floor.