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Issa proposes path to greater D.C. budget autonomy

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2011

The chairman of a U.S. House committee with oversight of D.C. affairs proposed a plan on Thursday that allows the District to spend its local funds on its terms by insulating it from federal budget squabbles on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, stopped short of offering full budget autonomy to the District, but asked Mayor Vincent C. Gray and financial officers if they could form a contingency budget that does not incorporate direct federal funds.

"We want the District to spend its own money, and to spend it wisely," Mr. Issa said after the hearing at the Rayburn House Office Building.

He said he will work with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to find co-sponsors on a bill that lays out his nascent plan.

Mr. Issa's proposal came during an amicable hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's D.C. subcommittee. Its chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, called the hearing "to examine the fiscal sustainability of D.C. spending," raising the specter of the control board that oversaw D.C. spending from 1995 to 2001.

Those fears proved unfounded, as the chairman and members of the committee praised the mayor, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and other city officials for sustained financial stability in the District.

"I am convinced that the District of Columbia could teach the Congress some things," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the committee.

Mr. Gray and Mr. Brown said their continuing ability to present a structurally balanced budget makes the case for D.C. budget autonomy from congressional oversight.

Natwar M. Gandhi, the D.C. chief financial officer, said the District "is in a better financial condition than perhaps any major city out there."

Yet Mr. Gowdy and the full committee's chairman were not willing to relinquish all of their oversight, arguing Congress still has a role to play. Mr. Issa likened the District to a major city within a state, for instance Los Angeles would establish its local funds and look to Sacramento for more.

Yet he was sympathetic to the ripple effect that congressional actions have on the District.

Mr. Gray said waiting on Congress to pass its federal budget forces the District to use an unusual Oct. 1-Sept. 30 fiscal year that splits up the school year. It also risks the loss of vital services during a federal government shutdown.

"We should never have been caught up in this," Mr. Gray said, referring to fears of a shutdown in early April.

Mr. Issa said he needed assurance that the District could craft an early contingency budget if Congress were to split its approval of local funds from its federal appropriation.

The mayor and Mr. Gandhi said they demonstrated their abilities during the threat of the shutdown, and that less than 2 percent of the city's overall budget is from payments specifically requested in this year's federal budget for D.C. programs and projects.The mayor shared a handshake with the chairmen and seemed to take heart from the hearing. He said he is looking forward to working with Congress toward D.C. budget autonomy.

"I really think that ought to be the priority now," he said after the hearing.

Mrs. Norton, an outspoken advocate for D.C. rights, appeared surprised by Mr. Issa's proposal, noting from the dais, "This is the first I've heard of it."

She said she would like to build on the plan. Earlier in the hearing, she criticized congressional leaders for placing riders on spending bills that affect the District without city approval.

She said the measures were unfair "because members from Arizona want you to do what they do in Arizona, and members from Ohio want you to do what they do in Ohio."

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