THE D.C. Council will appeal Monday’s decision by a federal judge invalidating the District’s budget autonomy law. We hope the appeals court finds the council more persuasive than did U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan. If not, Congress should finally take it upon itself to bestow upon the District a right enjoyed by every other local jurisdiction in the country.
Judge Sullivan struck down the city’s efforts, through a ballot referendum voters approved last year, to gain more spending freedom. The argument that voters could amend the city’s charter to provide for local control over local spending “simply cannot withstand judicial scrutiny,” the judge wrote.
In affirming that only Congress could make this change, Judge Sullivan sided with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. Dewitt against the council. But neither side in this lawsuit disagreed on the justice of budget autonomy — only on the means of attaining it. Even the judge seemed to go out of his way to stress the “extraordinarily powerful” policy arguments in support of budget autonomy.
No doubt there are complex legal issues — including statutory interpretations not addressed in Judge Sullivan’s 47-page opinion — that are worthy of further review by an appeals panel. Most intriguing is the argument by council attorneys that Congress spelled out areas it wanted exempted from local charter amendment, and it did not include local budget issues.
Nonetheless, the city shouldn’t place all its hopes for winning budget autonomy with the courts. The referendum was always seen as part of a “two-track approach.” Judge Sullivan’s decision — eloquently making the case for budget autonomy and making clear there is no question of Congress’s power to grant it — should prod the city’s political leaders to redouble their efforts on Capitol Hill. This isn’t about federal funds: The District is asking only for the right to spend money that the District raises from local taxpayers.