A key House Republican warned Thursday that city employees could face prosecution if the D.C. Council went ahead with plans to spend local tax dollars without congressional approval.
The threat, made during a two-hour hearing called by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House subcommittee with oversight of the District, raises the stakes in the city’s renewed attempt to win autonomy from Congress.
Meadows said that if the D.C. Council tried to implement a budget without the consent of Congress, it would be flouting the federal government’s “supreme authority” over the nation’s capital and possibly subject D.C. employees to federal prosecution.
The warning served as a reality check for city leaders, who had been buoyed the day before when Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton made clear that she supports full statehood for the nation’s capital.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who was not at Thursday’s hearing, has cast the budget fight with Congress as a first step toward making the District — which has more residents than Vermont or Wyoming — the 51st state.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has scheduled a vote Tuesday on a $13 billion budget that, for the first time, would have the District spend its locally raised tax revenue without congressional approval.
Since 1973, when the District was granted limited self-government by Congress, it has submitted its spending plan to the president for inclusion in the federal budget, much like a federal agency.
Mendelson and Bowser say a 2013 ballot measure passed by the District’s voters gives the city the authority to write Congress out of its budget process.
However, current and former congressional attorneys and even the District’s former attorney general testified before Meadows’s committee Thursday that the city lacks the legal authority to spend independently.
At the hearing, Meadows warned that Congress could invoke a rarely used federal law that makes it a crime for federal agencies to spend money not appropriated by Congress.
“Should the District attempt to enforce this act, D.C. employees could face repercussions,” Meadows said. “These employees could be subject to potential administrative penalties and could even be even subject to criminal liabilities.”
Much of Thursday’s debate centered on whether Congress intended to give the city power over its own budget in 1973 or at some point in the future.
Meadows drilled deep into aging congressional transcripts, saying he had read “several hundred pages” about D.C. home rule and knew more about the topic than he “ever cared or wanted to.”
He even called a congressional attorney from 40 years ago to testify. The person recounted that a compromise to the bill that allowed D.C. residents to elect a mayor and council centered around Congress maintaining control over the city’s budget.
Mendelson said Meadows was focused on the wrong issue. “The fundamental question is whether Congress today wants budget autonomy for the District,” he said.
He listed ways the District is in a stronger financial position now, compared with 1973, noting that the city has balanced its budget for 20 years, maintains billions in reserves, has fully funded its public employee pensions and pays more in federal taxes than 22 states.
He added that the city’s dependence on Congress has resulted in extra borrowing costs because the District’s bond rating is affected by having to answer to Congress.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, sided with Mendelson and argued that it defied logic that Republicans who champion states’ rights would seek to keep the District subservient to the federal government.
“I guess the District of Columbia is an ideological carve-out,” he said, “and how is it that a legislative body that struggles to pass its own annual budget and routinely misses appropriations deadlines should be allowed to exercise budgetary authority over the District?”
Six Republican lawmakers joined Meadows in the hearing room. Afterward, the chairman told reporters that they were “evaluating all of our options as it relates to enforcing the original intent of Congress” on spending authority over the District.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, said Meadows had already decided to go further. She said he had informed members of his subcommittee that it would move a bill Tuesday that would nullify the budget ballot measure approved by four out of five D.C. voters and would ban D.C. officials from future attempts to declare fiscal independence.
Meadows said he hadn’t decided whether legislation was needed and that it could be easier to insert language in the next federal budget that would have the same effect.
In a statement to reporters, AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that Meadows had the backing of House leadership.
“The D.C. government’s actions attempt to strip Congress of its Article 1 powers,” Strong said. “The speaker supports Chairman Meadows’ efforts to show the unlawfulness of the D.C. Budget Autonomy Act.”