In 2013, residents of the District of Columbia more or less filed for divorce from Congress. They voted by an overwhelming majority for a ballot measure giving the D.C. government control over its budget and freeing it from the obligation to wait for federal approval to spend the money the city raised from local taxes.
Later this week, the Republican majority in the House plans to give D.C. its formal response—a vote to repeal the local law that 83 percent of Washingtonians approved and which a superior court judge upheld earlier this spring.
Sorry, District denizens, this marriage isn’t over.
The budget battle is just the latest salvo in an escalating power struggle between the liberal leaders of a Democratic stronghold and the conservative federal lawmakers, who, under the Constitution, have the “exclusive” power to oversee D.C. In recent years, the District and Congress have fought over laws legalizing marijuana and protecting access to reproductive health care—in both cases, Republicans sought to overturn local policies enacted in D.C. And this November, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser hopes voters will approve a ballot measure in support of turning the District into the nation’s 51st state.
The aggressive moves by District officials represent a shift after years in which D.C. mostly played defense against attempts by congressional conservatives to restrict or block liberal policies on abortion, gun-control, and other issues. They are taking advantage of gridlock on Capitol Hill and the backstop of a friendly Obama administration, which has made it difficult for Republican leaders to exercise their authority. In 2014, the GOP Congress tried to block the voter-approved legalization of pot in the District, but since it acted through the appropriations process, it succeeded only in enacting language that prohibits D.C. from regulating and taxing the industry. “They were hoisted by their own petard,” crowed Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s veteran non-voting delegate in the House.
Bickering between D.C. and Congress goes back decades, and due to financial mismanagement, the District has not always had the best case for winning more budgetary autonomy. But D.C. officials point to their improved fiscal footing over the last decade and the fact that the city is much less reliant on federal funding than it was in the past. The Local Budget Autonomy Act would give the District control over the money it raises from local taxes, which now account for 90 percent of the funds it spends annually. The city government’s bigger problem is now Congress’s broken-down appropriations process, which forces D.C. to delay hiring and procurement—and lose out on revenue—while it waits for federal approval of its annual budget, according to testimony from Phil Mendelson, chairman of the D.C. Council.
For Republicans, the budget conflict forces them to choose between two longstanding principles: support for federalism and decentralized power on one hand, and fealty to the original intent of the Constitution, which leaves little doubt that Congress is in charge of D.C. “This action is probably more problematic than all previous actions,” said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who is chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C. and who wrote the bill repealing the Local Budget Autonomy Act. “Certainly it is not the time to give up a constitutional authority that has long been reserved for Congress.”
D.C. officials do not dispute that the Constitution gives Congress power to oversee the capital, but they have argued that the 1973 law granting the District “home rule” delegated that authority to local government. They’ve proposed that the budget be handled like any other legislation enacted in D.C., whereby Congress has 30 days to disapprove a law or else it takes effect. (Congress hasn’t blocked a bill using this process in nearly 25 years. It usually prefers to restrict District policy through the appropriations process.)
Norton also points out that Meadows’s two most recent predecessors, Chairmen Tom Davis of Virginia and Darrell Issa of California, each supported budget autonomy for D.C. The voter-approved law has been hung up in legal battles for the last two years, and the District’s current and former attorneys general disagreed with Bowser and the city council that D.C. could simply assert its budget authority without approval from Congress. A federal appeals court referred the case back to a D.C. Superior Court judge, who ruled in favor of the law in March.
For this year, at least, the budget fight might end up being a wash. The House is expected to pass the repeal bill when it comes to the floor this week, but it is unlikely to make it into law anytime soon. D.C. is moving forward with its budget on its own, but from a practical standpoint, Norton said the process won’t be much different than in years past, since federal lawmakers will ultimately have their say when it approves spending bills later this year. And the District’s long-running bid to escape the clutches of Congress will continue, perhaps with a citizens’ vote for statehood later November. But the city has been waging this battle for independence for many years, and as this week’s House vote demonstrates, Republicans in Congress have no desire to let D.C. go.
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