The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A tough D.C. budget season will require a team effort

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
5 min

The most consequential act in the District’s relationship with Congress was initiated this week when D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser unveiled her fiscal 2024 budget. The presentation to the D.C. Council is an important milestone in the D.C. budget process. But it is only the first stop. Congress is empowered to reject or modify any D.C. legislation, and the House and Senate can quash the city’s spending plans with the same alacrity with which they killed its criminal code reform.

That kind of rebuff is unlikely, however, because it’s hard to imagine Bowser and the council approving a budget so beyond the pale of fiscal sanity that congressional Democrats would join a Republican phalanx — as they did with the criminal code — to deliver another D.C. smackdown. But this is no time to take chances. By any measure, the handling of the budget by the city’s elected leaders is as crucial a test of home-rule prerogatives — and their political prowess — as any legislative initiative likely to emerge from the John Wilson Building during the term of this Congress.

That’s more reason for D.C. residents to pay close attention to this year’s budget process. Much is at stake.

D.C.’s resources are shrinking. The influx of billions in pandemic-related federal money has come to an end. The drop in commercial real estate values has taken a toll on city revenue as well. Spending has been forced back to pre-pandemic levels.

Residents need to observe how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent. And they need to know whether city agencies are operating according to design. Above all, D.C. voters must be satisfied that the budget responds to their needs and not those of special interests that some fear hold sway over City Hall. The mayor and council should seek public confidence, too. A D.C. budget with only marginal support from residents is a weak package to send to Congress.

At this early stage, however, it can be said that the D.C. budget process is off to an unpromising start. Bowser’s $19.7 billion “Fair Shot” budget has been received by some city lawmakers with all the welcome accorded snakes at a Rock Creek garden party.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) flatly declared that the “Mayor’s budget is not a fair shot.” And he has made clear his approach: “The Council has 56 days to fix these poor choices before its first vote on the budget.” Ward 1 Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D) called Bowser’s proposal to spend $8 million for emergency rental assistance “shocking.” Nadeau wants more. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) characterized the mayor’s proposal for $115 million to fix public housing units as “wildly unrealistic.” He, too, wants more.

Those were only the opening salvos in a budget process expected to play out over the next two months. Citizens concerned about what’s to come should get hold of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s useful road map, “A Resident’s Guide to the D.C. Budget.

In the coming weeks, residents will be able to see for themselves who is “all talk and no action” on the council. The time for real legislative work is at hand. Council committees must conduct budget oversight hearings in which, for example, the D.C. Housing Authority — an operating disaster — should get a no-holds-barred examination. Bowser’s $330 million in new spending for public safety and D.C. police deserves close scrutiny. As do her $50 million bike-lane and e-bike plans to make D.C. the two-wheel capital of America. Bowser’s investments in schools and spending for housing downtown belong in the mix as well.

The challenge is to construct a spending plan that commands united mayoral and council support — and warrants congressional approval.

Achieving the former is important to securing the latter. Again, at this stage, city leaders aren’t on the same page.

The mayor’s budget does not include funding for Mendelson’s free Metrobus proposal, which became law without her signature. Bowser withheld her approval because she believes the law’s true costs have not been calculated, and because she doesn’t much like the idea of paying for free rides for people living outside the District. In addition, Glen Lee, the city’s chief financial officer, said that soft economic conditions during the first part of the year have forced him to conclude that D.C. doesn’t have sufficient funds for the program.

Mendelson contends that the CFO has overstepped his authority and has mustered the council’s support for a plan for the hop-on bus service. That may well involve shifting funds from another program or agency.

Regardless of the method, Mendelson should find a way to get the mayor and CFO on board; lest Mendelson forget, the CFO position is a bipartisan creature of Congress. Pushing a budget forward without its full backing is a recipe for a poor reception in Congress.

Surely Mendelson must know that by now. This year’s budget process is as consequential as it gets.