D.C. moves forward on budget autonomy

Novel plan breezes through council, but Gray warns of obstacles on Hill

While Congress keeps its daggers drawn over the best way to avert the “fiscal cliff,” city lawmakers are forging ahead with a novel plan to divorce their local spending from budgetary stalemates on Capitol Hill — despite warnings about its legal validity from the D.C. mayor and a powerful House member.

The D.C. Council unanimously supported a measure late Tuesday that will allow city voters to weigh in this spring on whether the District deserves budget autonomy, or the right to set its own fiscal year and spend local tax dollars without affirmative action by Congress.

Under the plan, the local portion of the budget would be passed by D.C. lawmakers and submitted to Congress for a 30-day review, much like any other law emanating from city hall in the District. The review is passive, meaning federal lawmakers would have to actively disapprove of the local budget.

While the District is by and large a one-party town of Democrats, Mayor Vincent C. Gray does not always see eye-to-eye with local lawmakers. He fears their new approach to budget autonomy is legally unsound and could circumvent his collaborative efforts to achieve much the same goal on the Hill.

“Simply put, it’s just hard to imagine that the Congress would sit there and say, ‘Well, you guys can unilaterally determine that you have budget autonomy,’” Mr. Gray told reporters Tuesday, while city lawmakers plodded through a 12-hour legislative session.

Without offering a definitive opinion, a staff member for Rep. Darrell E. Issa, a key ally in legislative efforts on the Hill, alluded Wednesday to legal pitfalls contained in the strategy.

“The decision to move forward with such a referendum rests with elected officials, but constitutional concerns have been raised and any court challenges might distract from or delay efforts to move forward on budget autonomy through legislation,” the staffer said.

Devised by the advocacy community and shepherded to passage by council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the referendum will likely reach the April 23 ballot in conjunction with a special election to fill a vacant at-large seat on the council. Mr. Mendelson, a Democrat, has said the measure is legally sufficient and does not eliminate Congress‘ ultimate authority over the nation’s capital. He and groups such as DC Vote and DC Appleseed, the main proponents of the effort, have pitched the referendum as a “second track” alongside legislative efforts.

To be clear, Mr. Gray is onboard with the city’s plans to spend local dollars as it sees fit. He speaks about the concept frequently, noting the District submits a balanced budget on time each year, only to fret about government shutdowns while Congress mulls plans that give the city the green light to spend their funds.

But the mayor says the council’s referendum might not appeal to federal overseers, unraveling fragile relationships that have been forged over time.

For 18 months, the mayor and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, have been working with Mr. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on a legislative route to D.C. budget autonomy. Mr. Gray said he has not received any feedback from Mr. Issa or other federal lawmakers about the city’s new plan but fears a backlash once the referendum gains steam.

Legislative efforts have stalled so far because of conservative-penned “riders” that would change the city’s abortion or gun laws as part of the bill. But the negotiations have allowed city leaders to cultivate friendships on the Hill even as longtime allies such as Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican, and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, retire from Congress.

“You gotta make new friends,” Mr. Gray told reporters Tuesday.

Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who was considered a friend of the District until he left Congress in 2008, said Wednesday that Mr. Gray is well-equipped to build new relationships on the Hill, but it is a “long, slow process.” As for the referendum, Mr. Davis told council members that they might as well go for it. Congressional leadership is fluid, so perceived advantages for the District could change in an instant, according to the former congressman.

“I think moving quickly on this is probably better,” he said.

Proponents of the referendum say members of Congress haven’t demonstrated the ability to agree on much of anything these days, so they are unlikely to come together and actively reject the will of D.C. voters.

Nonetheless, the mayor consulted with the city’s attorney general and other legal analysts before compiling his objections this week in an eight-page letter to the council. In it, he reiterated his doubt that Congress will let the maneuver pass through unscathed.

“I wish it would happen,” he said. “I don’t think it will.”

Even as Mr. Gray asks the council to reconsider its strategy, he has been careful to reissue his support for budget autonomy and remain a cheerleader for D.C. home rule. After all, his cautious tone follows a two-year period in which he marched through the streets to protest congressional interference, visited New Hampshire to pitch D.C. statehood, and was even arrested protesting legislative meddling in the city’s abortion laws.

“I have no problem reconciling that,” Mr. Gray said of his mixed approaches to D.C. rights. “I’m saying that absolutely I want to have budget autonomy — we should be able to have the authority to determine how we spend our own money. I just have misgivings about this strategy.”

Asked if he would vote for budget autonomy in the spring, the mayor said: “Probably.”

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