D.C. Autonomy Deal Still Hinges on Policy Riders

Posted March 2, 2012 at 4:37pm

Three months into the second session of the 112th Congress, dynamics are shifting on legislative efforts to give the District of Columbia control of its own budget. But the proposal’s underlying problem remains: District officials will likely have to accept at least one policy rider they don’t like in exchange for more spending autonomy.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees D.C. affairs, is hopeful for a happy ending.

Since November he has been leading the charge to unlink the District’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process. He, like others, argues that the city unfairly faces the peril of a shutdown every time Congress nears a stalemate on a spending deal that would cut off local funds for, among other things, public schools and transportation.

In a brief interview last week, Issa told Roll Call that he is working to fulfill his “promise to work to give budget autonomy to the District.”

Rather than introducing a stand-alone bill, Issa said, he is now looking to attach D.C. budget autonomy language to another  as yet unspecified measure.

He said House Republican leaders are beginning to get involved in discussions on how to accomplish this and support the idea of greater budget autonomy for the District “in principle.”

“We’re also looking to find a way for local officials to feel comfortable with a win-win,” Issa continued.

Laena Fallon, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, confirmed that the Virginia Republican is on board.

But Fallon, like Issa, also suggested that the future of budget autonomy legislation depends in large part on local officials’ willingness to give as well as take.

Arguing that House Republicans need an incentive to vote for a bill to benefit the District, Issa included a provision in his original budget autonomy proposal that would bar the use of local funds for abortions.

“Chairman Issa put forward a proposal … that was rejected by District officials,” Fallon said. “Leader Cantor remains hopeful that there will be more flexibility by the District to find a path forward on this issue.”

“Flexibility” and a “win-win” could mean “compromise” on the very issue local officials turned back four months ago.

Previous Congressional overtures to give D.C. voting rights were rebuffed by local officials in the past because of policy riders, most notably measures that would have overturned D.C.’s existing gun laws or made them less restrictive.

This time around, local leaders have been mostly silent on whether they would be willing to compromise to get what they want, even as senior lawmakers appear reluctant to budge.

Cantor’s support for budget autonomy, first reported in a Washington Post editorial late last week, was greeted by an enthusiastic press release from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

“I appreciate the support of Majority Leader Cantor … [that] adds to the momentum and our hopes for budget autonomy this year,” she said.

Norton has previously said she would not get into hypothetical scenarios of what she would and would not accept before seeing a proposal, citing a positive working relationship with Issa that could potentially result in legislation without unwelcome consequences for the

“When we get to that bridge, we’ll cross it, or we won’t cross it,” said Doxie McCoy, a spokeswoman for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. “It depends on the proposal.”

DC Vote, the leading group advocating District autonomy, is clear in its opposition to any compromise.

“[The] negative part of [Cantor’s] statement is that he believes we should trade away parts of home-rule authority in order to get budget autonomy,” Executive Director Ilir Zherka said. “That’s unacceptable to D.C. residents.”