A report issued Tuesday by a House committee dismissed as nonbinding a voter-approved referendum to grant the District budget autonomy, signaling a possible legal fight ahead over the city’s attempts to seize greater control of its finances.
The House Appropriations Committee issued a report accompanying a D.C. spending bill Tuesday saying that the amendment to the Home Rule Charter that voters passed in April did not amount to a change in the law. The charter change, set to take effect in fiscal 2015, would allow the city to set its own fiscal calendar and spend its local tax dollars without congressional approval.
“The Committee considers the recent referendum in the District as an expression of the opinion of the residents, only, and without any authority to change or alter the existing relationship between Federal appropriations and the District,” the report states.
The comments come after city leaders debated the legality of the measure before the D.C. Council voted to allow it to go to referendum.
“At the time the council acted, we did so with the legal opinion that the Home Rule Act can be amended in the way that we’ve done it,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Tuesday in reaction to the report.
Among those initially opposing the effort was D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who warned the vote could antagonize Congress and jeopardize legislative efforts to secure budget autonomy. He has since expressed his support.
“The language in the committee report does not, and will not, bar us from working with the Committee and leaders on the Hill to ensure that budget autonomy is implemented as quickly as possible,” Mr. Gray said in a statement.
The charter change is still within a period of 35 legislative days during which Congress can block it if both chambers pass a disapproval resolution and it is signed by the president. That period could come to an end as soon as early next week, depending on congressional work schedules.
So far, federal lawmakers have not made an effort to block the charter amendment.
“We are grateful that the referendum remains unchallenged but we are continuing to make every effort to preserve the overwhelming will of District residents, expressed through the democratic process, to spend their local funds they alone raise,” said Daniel van Hoogstraten, spokesman for Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, signaled a willingness to help the District pursue budget autonomy, but a bill to that effect suffered a false start in 2011 when members of Congress tried to attach a provision to permanently ban the use of local funds for abortions in the District.
An Issa staffer in December warned of the potential of legal challenges to a potential charter amendment and said the referendum could tangle efforts to formulate a legislative solution to the problem.
Mr. Mendelson expressed confidence that city officials and congressional leaders could “work together” to find a solution.
“I’m not interest in having a fight with Congress,” he said. “Rep. Issa has expressed support for budget autonomy, and I don’t know why we can’t get there.”