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D.C. Budget Autonomy Ruling Is Just the Beginning of Local Control Fight

A federal judge’s ruling  on Monday that the District of Columbia does not have the power to grant itself budget autonomy quickly became new ammunition in Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s fight for greater autonomy from Capitol Hill.  

When U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan — a native Washingtonian who said he was “deeply moved” by arguments that D.C. residents are entitled to spend their own locally raised revenues — ruled that the court was “powerless to provide a legal remedy and cannot implement budget autonomy for the District,” Norton took it in stride.  

After decades of fighting for budget autonomy from Congress, Norton is is hoping the ruling adds new urgency to congressional effort to win District budget autonomy.  

Norton said she would continue to fight for D.C. budget autonomy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Norton said she would continue to fight for D.C. budget autonomy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

She was initially skeptical of the local attempt to amend the Home Rule Charter, but has vowed to redouble efforts to prevent any move by Congress to block or overturn the budget autonomy referendum, while fighting off new social policy riders on fiscal 2015 appropriations measures. During a Monday news conference with representatives of abortion-rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and others, Norton was cautious.  

Regardless of how the D.C. Council’s appeal of Sullivan’s ruling is decided, she believes the ruling should help garner national attention for efforts to get Congress to allow the District to control its locally raised revenue.  

“I caution you though, that even if the District gets budget autonomy … there could be attachments to our appropriation and we will need our allies then as well,” she said.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., has already taken up the challenge, filing a gun policy amendment in the House Rules Committee to the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Gingrey’s amendment would express the sense of the Congress that active-duty military personnel in their private capacity should be exempt from the gun control laws of D.C., which are some of the strictest in the nation.

In statements on the proposal, Gingrey has alleged that the city’s gun laws punish members of the military “while emboldening perpetrators of violent crime.”

Norton is vowing to fight the amendment, saying it throws the Republican principle of local control of local affairs under the proverbial D.C. bus.

D.C. should not be the “petri dish for undermining gun laws,” said Brian Malte, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  

The campaign is closely monitoring Gingrey’s amendment and prepared to alert constituents in key district’s nationwide if necessary, Malty said. They will also be working to make sure Senate allies are aware of the amendment.  

Norton rallied the national groups as a warning to her congressional colleagues. She was hoping to “alert them to the consequences of barring the city from spending its own local funds on local missions that are championed by these organizations nationwide.”  

If Republicans wield appropriations riders to stop D.C. from decriminalizing marijuana, defund needle exchanges or limit access to abortion services, they might face the wrath of angry constituents who are members of the national organizations, according to a letter sent to members of Congress by DC Vote on behalf of the coalition.

“We are not a learning laboratory and we’re not a petri dish,” warned DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry. “It is not fair to impose, you know, pet policies on residents of the District of Columbia just so members can score political points in other places with other groups and other constituencies.”

There was no immediate reaction to the ruling from Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, or House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Cantor has previously indicated a willingness to work with the District on its goal of budget autonomy.

National Right to Life Committee Legislative Director Douglas Johnson commended Boehner and House GOP leaders for “their effective defense of Congress’s constitutional role with respect to the Nation’s Capital.”

Under the direction of Republican leaders, the Office of the House General Counsel weighed in on the side of Mayor Vincent Gray in the case legal dispute with the D.C. Council over the voter-approved changes to the city’s budgeting procedure.  

The brief argued that the only “constitutionally permissible manner” for D.C. to achieve the budget autonomy is by way of the normal legislative process — “and Congress has not yet done that.”

“There have never been any serious legal arguments for the so-called Budget Autonomy Act — it is a brazen attempt to pull off a hijacking of federally controlled funds, behind a dense smokescreen of political polemic,” Johnson said in a statement. “As we’ve said all along and as Judge Sullivan ruled, under the Constitution and federal statutes, all public funds in the federal district are under federal control, and to spend any such funds without appropriation by Congress would violate the Anti-Deficiency Act — to which criminal penalties attach.” 

A spokesman for House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is sponsoring a local budget autonomy bill, said Issa continues to gather support for the measure.  

Meanwhile, the D.C. Council’s legal team indicated another judge might have the final word on the matter.  

General Counsel V. David Zvenyach said that despite the ruling, the legal team for the D.C. Council remains confident in the merits of its legal position. They plan to appeal the case to the D.C. Circuit Court.  

“Today’s ruling is bittersweet,” Gray said in a statement, “because there is no fiercer advocate for budget autonomy in the District of Columbia than me.”  

Gray said he was not surprised by Sullivan’s ruling and vowed, in a statement, to continue fighting for budget autonomy on Capitol Hill.  

“The 647,000 residents of our nation’s capital deserve the freedom to spend our own money as we see fit without first getting a permission slip from Congress,” Gray said.