- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2012

The District’s non-voting member of Congress was put in a tough spot this week when all 12 members of the D.C. Council decided to support a springtime referendum that would allow voters to weigh in on budget autonomy, the long-sought ability to set the city’s fiscal year and spend local funds without being tied to the spending approval process on Capitol Hill.

Initially, House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton noted there were “legal and institutional issues and risks of a referendum that would allow the city to give itself budget autonomy.” She signaled she would continue to work with Democrats and Republican allies such as Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, to secure the privilege through legislation.

The next day, she made it clear that she “hopes and expects D.C. residents to join her in voting ‘yes’ for budget autonomy when the issue appears on the ballot.”

It was a more forceful statement, if not a turnabout of opinion. And by the end of the week — in her third round of public statements on the issue — she attempted to shine a light on the tightrope she is walking as the District’s “warrior on the Hill.”

Her fellow members of Congress have seen her fight “tooth and nail for the District, so they know what I have to do — that I have to defend the referendum,” she told host Bruce DePuyt of NewsChannel 8 on Friday.

“But they also know I’ve been working with many members, including people not in my party, who are out on a limb to try to get us budget autonomy,” she added. “Somehow or another, I’ve got to continue to work with both.”

Mrs. Norton was referring to efforts by Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and others on the Hill to pass a clean bill on D.C. budget autonomy. But it’s proven to be difficult as federal lawmakers sink various efforts by attaching legislative riders that would alter the city’s abortion or gun laws.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, formally placed the push for budget autonomy on two tracks at a legislative meeting on Tuesday through a charter referendum bill that would allow city voters to affirmatively assert their rights to budget autonomy. He went out of his way to note that the ultimate goal in budget autonomy for the District. If Congress can come through with a bill, then the council will “step aside.”

“I believe that we have the authority, that the bill that I introduced is legally sufficient,” Mr. Mendelson told the Washington Times.

The politics get trickier when a legal opinion from D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan is put into the mix. The opinion, which the Mr. Nathan’s office has deemed “legally privileged” and not available for public inspection, raises concerns about a legal challenge to the referendum.

Mr. Mendelson acknowledged that “some folks” have said the city lacks the authority for the measure under the reasoning that “Congress would have never intended that we could amend the budget process.”

“Because Congress is involved in the process, therefore, they never intended that we could cut them out of the process,” Mr. Mendelson said of their thinking in an interview on Tuesday. “But we don’t cut them out the process. Because we would approve the budget like any other act, which goes to the Hill, and Congress always has plenary authority over the District.”

In the last year, Mayor Vincent C. Gray has been arrested, marched down 15th Street to “Free D.C.” and traveled to New Hampshire to tout D.C. statehood. On numerous occasions, he asked, “What’s it going to take?” for 600,000 city residents to rise up and demand their rights.

But he has been less forthright on the new referendum. Asked about the council’s move during his biweekly press conference, Mr. Gray simply said, “I support budget autonomy.”