D.C. budget autonomy bid in limbo on the Hill

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It’s been 16 months since a powerful House member signaled a plan to allow the District to spend its local funds without being tethered to federal spending plans on Capitol Hill, an enticing goal for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the city’s piggy-bank minders.

But despite increasing bipartisan support for the measure known as “D.C. budget autonomy,” the bill by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has not been pushed through committee and onto the House floor.

The District’s push for local budget control — allowing the District to set its own fiscal year and sever its local budget from the federal appropriations process — enjoyed an auspicious start in 2012. President Obama urged Congress to pass D.C. budget autonomy in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said the plan would help every jurisdiction in the capital region. The proposal also garnered support from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. But no one in Congress has thrown enough muscle behind the proposal to thwart the type of legislative add-ons that tend to sink pro-District legislation, said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. Last fall, Mr. Issa’s bill had a false start when House members tried to permanently ban the use of local funds for abortion. In the Senate, a D.C. budget-autonomy bill had to be withdrawn after Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, attached riders that would alter the District’s gun laws and abortion rights.

“In a nutshell, nobody has the ability to back these guys off,” Mr. Evans said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Gray and other advocates for the District have zeroed in on budget autonomy as the low-hanging fruit when it comes to achievable goals in Congress. City leaders touted the measure in Charlotte, N.C., during the Democratic National Convention, and the advocacy group D.C. Vote unveiled a new ad campaign that says “Free D.C.’s Budget.” On Wednesday, volunteers affiliated with D.C. Vote handed out fliers on the issue to the lunch crowd on Capitol Hill.

With more financial clashes looming in Congress, the issue of budget autonomy is especially pressing to the District now. Because its budget is tied to the federal appropriations process, the District also bears the brunt of any government shutdown and has to prepare for any threats of one.

On Thursday, the House approved a short-term spending plan to keep government spending at current levels through March, since Congress has not passed formal appropriations bills. The plan would avoid a federal government shutdown when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. The Senate is expected to take up the resolution this week.

The District’s nonvoting member of Congress, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, was unsuccessful in urging House leaders to include a provision that would allow the city to spend its local funds throughout fiscal 2013. For now, the District is only authorized to spend local funds through the life of the resolution.

Although there are several financial scandals — and probes into potentially criminal behavior — heating up city politics, officials say that they make no difference in Congress‘ action or lack thereof in granting the District more financial autonomy.

“They have not used the foibles of some politicians against the residents of the District,” said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat.

Mr. Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said local scandals are not held against voters in other states and should not prevent the District from gaining more control over its locally raised funds.

“It’s clear we can manage our own business,” he said. “It seems like a no-brainer, and they should move it through.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Gray remains hopeful that budget autonomy, should it pass, can be a step toward fuller self-determination in the District, such as voting rights in Congress or even statehood, Mr. Ribeiro said.

A spokesman for Mr. Issa’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said the budget autonomy measure “is not linked to representation in Congress,” and did not say when the proposal may surface again.

Mrs. Norton said that over time, measures that increase autonomy for the District have historically accelerated the push for more rights.

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