Ballot Initiative Could Alter District-Congress Relationship

Posted April 17, 2013 at 4:37pm

The hyper-local special election for a D.C. Council seat next week isn’t likely to get much attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

But they might want to monitor the referendum question on the April 23 ballot that could profoundly change how Congress does its work, as well as test the extent to which it is willing to exert its power over the federal city.

The referendum, which is expected to pass overwhelmingly, would amend the D.C. charter to “permit the Council to adopt the annual local budget for the District of Columbia government; … permit the District to spend local funds in accordance with each Council approved budget act; and … permit the Council to establish the District’s fiscal year.”

In other words, it would unlink D.C.’s budget from the congressional appropriations process, sparing the city from shutdown anxiety each time Congress nears a stalemate on a spending deal, and in general representing a new frontier in D.C.’s path to self-determination.

“The [referendum] puts [the] people of the District at the forefront of our fight for control over our own local tax dollars,” James Jones, the communications director for advocacy group DC Vote, said earlier this year.

For lawmakers on Capitol Hill who handle local affairs and the D.C. portion of the appropriations process, budget autonomy would in one swoop eliminate a major piece of their legislative portfolios.

Many of them are just learning about the issue as the referendum vote draws near, after President Barack Obama included sample D.C. budget autonomy language in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal. Their comments indicate they are still figuring out what it would mean for them.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. — the newly installed chairman of the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, which includes D.C.’s budget — suggested he supported budget autonomy in principle but questioned the referendum tactic.

“I think if they want to change the relationship, it would be better to have Congress do that,” Crenshaw said of D.C. residents voting to take the reins of the city’s budget. “If you do away with this kind of budget authority … that has ramifications and you don’t know what the ending’s gonna be.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was tapped this year to be the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C., said during a speech last week at Howard University that he was “of two minds.”

“Do I think maybe D.C. could have more autonomy? Maybe,” he said. “But I also know that the Constitution puts D.C. under Congress’ purview, and that we give D.C. money from the rest of the country, from tax receipts. So I think that oversight on the money that we spend, it is incumbent, it’s a responsibility of the Constitution, that we have oversight of the money that we spend from the U.S. Treasury in D.C.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who has made the rounds to all the new chairmen and ranking members of House and Senate committees with D.C. jurisdiction, said she isn’t overly concerned with their equivocation because they also signaled an openness to the concept of greater local autonomy.

“When I hear a senator saying he’s of two minds, that’s progress as far as we’re concerned,” Norton said.

But assuming the referendum passes and even if key lawmakers are on board, its chances for survival are not guaranteed. A handful of powerful government officials, including Norton, Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, have questioned its constitutionality and warned it could be challenged in the courts.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill could likewise see the charter amendment as unconstitutional, or simply as bypassing the authority given to the Congress to manage some of the affairs of the District. Like all measures passed on the local level, Congress has an opportunity to pass a disapproval resolution within a certain window of time and have that resolution signed by the president. That process is so cumbersome, however, that it’s rarely been employed and in this case Obama would likely not support the effort.

A provision to invalidate the charter amendment entirely could be included as a rider in any must-pass spending bill, which is seen as a more likely workaround. Through this method, Congress was for years able to block D.C. from instituting its medical marijuana program, which it approved overwhelmingly through a ballot initiative.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa has been working to advance D.C. budget autonomy legislation for the past year and a half, but threats of policy riders to restrict local abortion funding have derailed progress along the way.

The California Republican has said he does not believe the charter amendment has legal standing, calling it a “populist vote.”

And while he did not say he would take such action, he did recently allude to Congress’ power to reverse the vote’s outcome, if it wanted to.

“The federal city, should Congress choose, [could] have no mayor, no city council, no budget whatsoever, and at one time that was the case,” Issa said. “Any act of Congress created the opportunity to, and has periodically adjusted, the Home Rule Act. It could evaporate it in one continuing resolution rider.”