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D.C. Council Referendum Gets Chilly Hill Reception

D.C. councilmembers have unanimously endorsed a new strategy for achieving budget autonomy that wouldn’t require Congress’ help. They are forging ahead, however, without clear support from top local officials and, for that matter, House Republican leadership.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) today introduced a measure authorizing a citywide vote on a referendum to amend the Home Rule Charter that would unlink the District’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process.

If the authorizing bill is endorsed before the end of the year, residents would have the opportunity to vote on the referendum during the next scheduled election, likely a special election expected to take place as early as April. If it passes, Congress would have 35 days to pass a disapproval resolution on the charter amendment. If Congress fails to do so, the proposal would go into effect.

House Republican leaders, though, who have been negotiating with D.C. officials on budget autonomy, were not amused.

“This new approach proposed by the city council would set back the real efforts in Congress to provide the District more flexibility,” a senior Republican Leadership aide told Roll Call.

Pursuing this avenue was necessary, Mendelson said, because although there has been momentum on Capitol Hill during the past year to advance D.C. budget autonomy legislation, it has frequently been linked to issues such as abortion or gun rights.

“All along, we have been pursuing getting a clean bill passed on the Hill to advance D.C. democracy and self-determination,” Mendelson said in his introduction of the bill today. “Despite considerable efforts by many people, this strategy has not produced the clean bill we need.”

Mendelson emphasized that the referendum tactic, lobbied for by activist groups DC Appleseed and DC Vote, would not replace efforts by GOP allies in Congress to help the District. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has emerged over the past year as the city’s unlikely champion.

A referendum, Mendelson said, was also not intended to override advocacy by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who, along with Mayor Vincent Gray (D), has spent considerable time forging relationships with powerful House Republicans who can help them meet their goals.

“This allows us to pursue a two-track strategy … to continue to support our allies on the Hill and their efforts to achieve affirmative legislation while at the same time realizing … that the charter referendum process allows us to produce a clean bill on our own,” Mendelson said.

Walter Smith and Ilir Zherka, executive directors of DC Appleseed and DC Vote, respectively, have also made this distinction.

But so far, Norton and Gray have not yet indicated their support for the councilmembers, all of whom have signed on as co-sponsors to Mendelson’s bill authorizing the referendum.

Gray’s spokesman would say only that the mayor “endorses D.C. budget autonomy.” Norton stopped short of offering an endorsement in a statement released this afternoon. Citing “increasing Republican and Democratic support for budget autonomy,” she said she planned to “continue to work with our allies in the House and Senate to pass a budget autonomy bill.”

Multiple sources, in conversations with Roll Call, indicated that the officials might fear a poor reaction from Issa, who might feel that his help is not valued or deemed necessary should the D.C. Council take matters into its own hands.

It could also not sit well with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who have expended political capital trying to advance the cause of D.C. budget autonomy.

Issa’s spokesman would not comment. Given the response from the senior GOP leadership aide, however, fears about how circumventing Congress would be perceived on Capitol Hill could be legitimate.

Of course, House Republican leaders could also reject the Council’s efforts to pass a “clean” budget autonomy bill. Earlier this year, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said the Virginia Republican supported the principle of budget autonomy but hoped the District would show “more flexibility” in working to achieve it.

At this point, though, Norton would only say her concerns about the referendum path were grounded in “the legal and institutional risks.” She did not clarify what those risks entailed, nor would her spokesman.

It might, however, have something to do with the findings of an internal memo obtained and reported on by the Washington Post. Prepared by D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan last October, the document concluded that a budget autonomy referendum was not permissible under the charter. Depending on how things go, the referendum could be battled in the courts.

DC Appleseed and DC Vote disagree, saying they have consulted with their own attorneys and determined that a referendum on budget autonomy is within legal bounds. While the charter does restrict amendments through referendum on specific issues such as the Height Act and voting rights, it says nothing about budget autonomy.

In an interview with Roll Call this afternoon, Mendelson emphasized that there was precedent for using a referendum to bypass Congressional inaction, namely the referendum that a few years ago resulted in a charter amendment to make the D.C. attorney general an elected office.

Mendelson said that whether the referendum would face legal challenges was somewhat beside the point.

“I recognized the fact that there are some who argue that the Council doesn’t have this authority. I have been briefed by attorneys who have looked at this, including the Council’s general counsel, and we think we have the authority to do this. But that’s not really the issue,” Mendelson said. “The issue is that we want to get budget autonomy, and I’m hopeful that this effort will actually result in our friends being successful on the Hill. If not, then we have this vehicle to get budget autonomy, but the preferred course would be the clean bill on the Hill.”

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