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Bob McDonnell Backs D.C. Budget Powers

Giving momentum to the growing movement for D.C. budget autonomy, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has signaled his support for the idea.

In a letter dated Feb. 9 obtained by Roll Call this evening, McDonnell wrote to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) endorsing legislation that would delink D.C.’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process.

“As a follow up to our conversations, I am writing to offer my support for Chairman Issa’s initiative to give the District of Columbia certain budget autonomy over its own budget,” McDonnell wrote. “It’s what the governors of every state enjoy.”

Issa, whose committee oversees D.C. affairs, introduced a bill that would do just that late last year. To win Republican votes, however, he included language that would also bar local funds for abortions in the District.

Democrats and local officials rejected the bill on those grounds but expressed appreciation for Issa’s support for budget autonomy and for his commitment to finding common ground. He has since been working to craft another version of the legislation that would win the necessary support, particularly from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Mayor Vincent Gray (D).

A social conservative who opposes abortion rights, McDonnell was careful to note in his letter that “under [Issa’s] proposal, the city would be able to spend its own money … subject to Congressional restrictions placed the previous years (such as tax payer funding for abortion).” District residents, while benefiting from setting their own budget, would still be subject to policy riders in Congressional appropriations measures.

Gray was copied onto McDonnell’s letter, but Norton’s office said today that it was unaware of the letter prior to media inquiries.

Spokesmen for Gray, Cantor and McDonnell could not immediately respond to requests for comment on the context in which the letter was written — or whether Cantor’s inclusion in the letter meant House Republican leadership could be on board with budget autonomy for D.C.

A spokesman for Issa confirmed to Roll Call that Issa and McDonnell had previously talked about this issue, as the letter suggests, but did not clarify who approached whom.

Advocates for D.C. statehood and greater autonomy argue that Congress should take greater steps to give the District more opportunities to make its own rules, and a perfect next step, they argue, would be allowing it to set its own budget and spend its own money on its own schedule.

Although it might not seem obvious why a Virginia public official would weigh in on D.C. affairs, McDonnell says in his letter that D.C. budget autonomy is “in both Virginia’s and Maryland’s best interest.”

Several times last year the federal government loomed toward shutdown during budget stalemates. With the District of Columbia dependant on a successful appropriations process to receive funds for everyday operations, such as public schools and public transportation, the city would have been seriously disrupted had Congress been unable to reach a spending agreement.

A shutdown of the Metro system, for instance, would have affected more than 100,000 Virginians who commute into the District each day for work, McDonnell said.

“The District of Columbia is one of three partnering jurisdictions in the National Capitol region,” he continued. “When the city is unable to plan its future investments in infrastructure, it has an impact on the economic development dynamic for the entire region.”

President Barack Obama, in his fiscal 2013 budget request, also expressed his willingness to help Congress pass legislation to give D.C. budget autonomy.

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