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Senators Might Seize D.C. Lawsuit As Opportunity to Act on Budget Autonomy

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Attorneys preparing to sue Mayor Vincent Gray and his administration to force compliance with the District’s budget autonomy law informed all relevant members of Congress before heading to D.C. Superior Court on Thursday.  

Hours later, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee called for Congress to pass legislation co-sponsored by Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, that would permit the District to spend local tax funds without congressional approval.  

“Congress should seize this opportunity to allow the District to control its local funds, set its own fiscal calendar, and better protect the District from the harmful effects of future federal government shutdowns,” according to the statement sent to CQ Roll Call in response to questions about the lawsuit’s impact.  

If Congress passes a bill endorsing budget autonomy, the lawsuit pitting one branch of District government against the other could be tossed out.  

“That would moot the suit,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson confirmed, adding, “It’s an ironic situation that the leaders in Congress support budget autonomy and yet the legislation can’t go through.” Though a hearing on the budget autonomy bill has not yet been announced, a committee spokesperson pledged that Carper would continue working with Begich, who was not available for comment Thursday, and Capitol Hill colleagues “to make budget autonomy for the District a reality.”  

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., declined to comment on Thursday. His own budget autonomy legislation cleared his committee, but has not yet been brought to the floor of the chamber for a vote.  

Meanwhile, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who also sits on the Oversight Committee but has no floor vote, said in a statement that she would continue to head off any efforts by Congress to block or overturn the D.C. budget autonomy referendum, “pending a final court decision.”  

Norton noted continued progress toward moving the budget autonomy bill through Congress, but did not comment on how the pending litigation might affect Capitol Hill’s relationship with the local government.  

Following the fiscal 2014 appropriations process, Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., who chairs the House Appropriations panel with control over D.C.’s local budget, asked the Government Accountability Office to weigh in on the local law’s legal standing. Crenshaw, who could not be reached for comment on Thursday, in January received a GAO opinion declaring the law null.

Those who doubt the legal standing of the law point to that GAO opinion as reason not to follow the local law.

“While we all agree that the District deserves full budget and legislative autonomy, we are confident that the court will side with the legal opinions of the District’s Attorney General, the District’s Chief Financial Officer, and the Government Accountability Office,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the mayor, in an email.

The fact that Gray and other city officials have taken it upon themselves to try to nullify the budget autonomy law, rather than standing up to Congress, strikes Georgetown University Law Center professor David A. Super as “unfortunate.”

“I think the proper way to handle it is to implement it, because it is valid, and if it’s unpleasant to Congress, Congress will overrule it,” he said in an interview. “Congress has every means of getting rid of this.”

When the District was financially irresponsible a couple of decades ago, the fact that Congress had approved its local budget didn’t stop Capitol Hill from “cracking down hard” and appointing a Control Board, Super said.

“Similarly, if the District uses these new procedures to produce responsible budgets, I don’t think there will be any sustained problem with Congress,” he said. “It really depends on whether you have a responsible budget coming out or not. I think the process is going to be secondary to most people.”

Defenders of the local budget autonomy law noted that the real challenge in passing congressional budget autonomy legislation would be avoiding amendments related to abortion, gun control and other social policy issues that have foiled previous efforts.

“Can these bills avoid any harmful social policy riders and make it to the finish line?” DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry asked in an interview. “I don’t know what’s changed in Congress to make us believe that those bills would be successful now.”

People on all sides agree that, even with the local budget autonomy law, Congress unquestionably has the ability to add policy riders.

“They have still a very substantial role,” said Karen Dunn, one of the attorneys representing the D.C. Council. “All this says is that locally raised and locally kept funds in the D.C. general fund can be spent locally on local projects.”

When it comes to social policy, Dunn said Congress “can still do anything they want.”

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