- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

As Congress begins consideration of the District of Columbia appropriations bill for fiscal year 2002, now is an opportune time to review where the District stands with respect to gaining congressional approval over its own budget. Even after Mayor Anthony A. Williams proposed and the D.C. Council passed a responsible and balanced budget, the District cannot spend any of its own money until Congress passes the District's budget. While there are many worthy fights to wage in the battle over home rule, budget autonomy clearly seems to be one of the most practical and doable.
As is the case in any other municipality or state, the District's budget is prepared by the executive branch (the mayor) and approved by the legislative body (the council). This is not some simple process, but involves year-round work by the mayor's budget office, the chief financial officer's office and the council's own budget office. Over a period of several months, the council conducts extensive oversight and budget hearings over every District agency and function. In the end, the mayor and the council come to terms over a budget, and it is passed and signed. In recent years, the control board provided an additional layer of oversight and approval. But, despite this extensive process, the District's budget still must be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Congress - a feat that recent history reveals has not been an easy task.
Just as the council conducts its own hearings on its budget, congressional committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate are conducting their own hearings on the District's budget. Both chambers then produce an appropriations bill for the District that must weave its way through the legislative process, which includes subcommittee and full committee markups and floor votes. After completing that process in both chambers, the House and Senate have to reconcile their differences and send the bill to the president for his signature.
By the time the bill is introduced in the House for the first time, it no longer looks like the budget the District produced. Added to it in the past have been more than 150 general provisions or riders to the budget that direct the District on how it can or cannot spend its own money. And, as the bill moves through the legislative process, any member can offer an amendment, and then the mischief really multiplies.
For the past 10 years, Congress has prevented the District from spending any of its own funds to run a very limited domestic partnership program, despite the fact that more than 102 other municipalities have similar programs. While the District has one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS in the nation, we cannot spend any of our own funds to conduct a needle exchange program - a proven AIDS prevention program. Congress has even gone one step further by placing limitations on the existing privately funded program. This is despite the fact that more than 130 other cities across the county conduct such programs without congressional intervention.
There may be an attempt this year to prohibit the District from spending any of its own funds to implement a recent ruling by the District's Office of Human Rights regarding the Boy Scouts, even though that case is still pending in the courts. The list of restrictions goes on and on, and the debates over these riders to the budget bill delay its passage and the use of our own money year after year.
This year, under new leadership for the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, the House will hopefully take a different tack and start with a bill free of these unnecessary restrictions on the District, particularly if they have no financial bearing upon the District's budget. With the recent change in control of the Senate, now our Democratic friends can demonstrate their true commitment to D.C. home rule by passing a bill free of these riders.
Until the District gains full autonomy over its budget, Congress always will have the opportunity to micromanage the District. In the meantime, Congress should restrain itself and allow the District to spend its own money in the responsible manner in which it decides. In the upcoming months, we will learn exactly how much this Congress really believes in local control and in the District's home rule.

Carl Schmid, a Republican, is a political consultant who lives in Washington.

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