Congress Aims to Keep Hold of D.C. Purse Strings

Norton says oversight committee plans to block city's effort to spend its own money

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., listens during a news conference in the Cannon House Office Building on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., listens during a news conference in the Cannon House Office Building on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 12, 2016 at 6:26pm

House Republicans are planning to block permanently the District of Columbia’s efforts to loosen the federal government’s grip on its purse strings.  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told reporters after a committee hearing Thursday that she expects the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to mark up a bill as early as next week that would prevent the District from ever seeking to make its own spending decisions without congressional approval.  

Norton said she then expects the bill to be attached to an appropriations measure and sent to the floor where she believes the Republican-controlled House will pass it.  

[Related: What a Long, Strange Case: D.C. Budget Autonomy]
At Thursday’s hearing, an exasperated Norton and other Democratic members of the House Government Operations subcommittee questioned a panel of attorneys and current and former D.C. officials about the Local Budget Autonomy Act.  

The referendum ratified by District residents in 2013 and validated in court this year would remove Congress and the president from the District’s appropriations process.   

[Related: D.C. Council to Mayor: See You in Court]
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said Congress should hold up a mirror to its own budget process when it comes to dysfunction.  

“How is it that a legislative body that struggles to pass its own annual budget and routinely misses appropriations deadlines should be allowed to exercise budgetary authority over the District?” Connolly said.  

Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said if the District operated outside of the federal government’s parameters, it could put employee paychecks at risk.  

“If those people are paid by funds that have not been appropriated by Congress there would be an issue as to whether or not the District of Columbia is in compliance,” Meadows said. “This is a reason why the passage of the budget control act by the council was not well advised.”  

Officials at the hearing labored over the intricacies of whether it was even legal for the District to amend certain parts of a law passed by Congress decades ago.  

The issue stems from legal arguments of the local law granting the city control over the dollars raised locally, through sales, income and property taxes. Control over those dollars would make the capital city less dependent on the congressional appropriations process.  

In March, a Superior Court judge ruled the district could independently decide its expenditures after a long legal process that kicked to the case back to the lower court.  

In April, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called for a citywide vote in November to make the city the 51st state. The decades-old plan would call for the overwhelmingly Democratic District to have a voting member in the House and two Senators. Republicans have called the effort a non-starter.  

Phil Mendelson, chairman of the D.C. City Council which passed the act in 2012, said being tied to the congressional appropriations process can be considered a negative factor to D.C.’s credit rating, particularly when gridlock has led to a federal government shutdown.  

“What does Congress give up or lose with budget autonomy?” Mendelson asked the panel. “Nothing.”  

Contact Rahman at or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter.

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