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Did Shutdown Showdown Advance D.C. Budget Autonomy?

Although October’s partial federal government shutdown was a tense stretch for the District, those 16 days might help ease the way for budget autonomy.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget is the strongest statement to date in support of greater local autonomy for Washington, D.C. For the second year in a row, he’s vowed the White House will work with Congress and Mayor Vincent Gray to provide the District local budget autonomy. This year, Obama also debuted his support for legislative autonomy.

“I’ve never seen an issue more ripe for passage than budget autonomy,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who likens the current budget experience to having the city’s local dollars caught up in “flypaper.”

As Congress neared the shutdown brink in the fall, Norton pleaded for provisions that would exempt D.C. from the melee. Unique among jurisdictions, the District needs a federal appropriation to spend its budget, even though it is largely funded by local income, sales and property taxes and fees. On Oct. 1 — the first day of the shutdown — Norton begged her Democratic colleagues to vote for a GOP carve-out that would have exempted the city.

“Our appropriators got up and spoke about the District being able to spend its own money,” she said, referring to speeches from House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C. spending. The debate shed light on the city’s balanced budget, “full faith and credit” bond ratings and huge surplus, which is now pegged at $1.75 billion.

But it remains to be seen whether that debate, and the attention it garnered for the city’s struggle, will translate into congressional action. Legislative autonomy is a long shot. A bill introduced in January by Norton to eliminate congressional review of newly passed District laws has zero co-sponsors.

The lone budget autonomy bill to make it out of committee — a measure sponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. — has seen no action since it cleared the committee in July. Issa has previously indicated Democrats are blocking the bill from coming to the floor for a vote. Norton told CQ Roll Call that the bill has “some issues, mostly technical, and we’ve not been able to move them yet.”

Budget autonomy backers have other reasons to be optimistic, especially in the Senate.

D.C. shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, who works essentially as an elected lobbyist for the District and is not recognized by the chamber, predicts a budget autonomy bill will be introduced in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in the coming months. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairman of the panel’s Subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Relations and the District of Columbia, has declared himself a supporter of budget autonomy and indicated he is eager to work on the issue. He has not introduced legislation.

Last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill that included D.C. budget autonomy. That language never made it to the omnibus spending deal approved by both chambers for fiscal 2014, but Norton believes the Republican-controlled House is warming to the notion. As evidence, she points to the fact that Congress took no action to interfere with a budget autonomy referendum approved by D.C. voters in April 2013. The bill became a local law on Jan. 1, although the House Appropriations Committee and Government Accountability Office have raised concerns it does not pass legal muster.

Obama’s support is also encouraging on the local level.

“I think it’s very obvious that we know how to manage money,” Gray told CQ Roll Call, pointing out the fiscal resiliency on display during the shutdown. “I don’t know what the reluctance of Congress would be to give us the ability to control our own dollars. That’s all we’re asking for, just like any other city or state.”

Though advocates are pushing to implement the 2015 budget on the timetable established in the new local budget autonomy law, Gray remains dubious about its legal standing. He indicated that the GAO opinion declaring the measure null reflected “where a lot of us were” on the issue.

Still, the D.C. Council is taking steps to put the law on firmer footing. A unanimously approved resolution, introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, authorizes the city’s general counsel to initiate, defend or intervene to assert the interests of the council in supporting the legality of the act.

Gray said he has talked to Mendelson, “but we intend to follow the typical budget timetable that we’ve been faced with in the past.” Instead, he is counting on Issa’s bill and friends in the Senate to “get us to the finish line.”

DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry is encouraged by Obama’s strong support for greater autonomy for the District.

“The shutdown did bring more attention to the issue,” she said, because D.C. was “inappropriately in the middle of it all.”

The next major advancement in the fight for greater self-governance will be implementation of the new local law. Those who seek to undermine it are, according to Perry, undermining democracy.

“We still think that there’s time for Gray to change his mind,” she said about the budget year, adding that, by doing so, he would be respecting the voice and vote of 83 percent of District residents who supported the referendum in April. “That’s what’s at stake.”

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