- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2011

A Republican proposal on Capitol Hill puts the District within striking distance of greater budget autonomy, a practical and symbolic goal of city leaders who have repeatedly sought to wrest control of their own affairs from congressional oversight.

But it comes at a price.

Draft legislation by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would allow the District to start its fiscal year on July 1 and use its own funds immediately after the city government approves its budget, according to a copy of the draft legislation obtained Monday by The Washington Times.

However, the proposal has one caveat: No D.C. funds can be used for abortions, except in cases where the life of the mother would be endangered or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the draft bill says.

The bill would put D.C. leaders in the position of having to decide whether budget control is worth acceding to congressional interference in city affairs — and it wasn’t immediately clear Monday what they would decide.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress and an outspoken critic of congressional interference in local matters, made no mention of the abortion clause in a brief statement Monday. She said she is reviewing the plan with Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown.

“Even though Rep. Issa and I do not always agree on everything, I appreciate that he clearly supports giving the District local budget autonomy,” Mr. Brown said, adding that he needs more time to review the proposal.

Mr. Gray’s spokeswoman, Linda Wharton-Boyd, signaled that the mayor is also evaluating the legislation.

“He is aware,” she said, “that the pro-life movement placed a lot of pressure on Congressman Issa to continue the prohibition on using local dollars for abortion.”

Mr. Issa’s proposal follows up on an idea he floated at a hearing on the D.C. budget in May, and city leaders said they appreciate that he followed up on the comments.

Mr. Gray and Mrs. Norton have pushed for greater local control over the city’s budget, which can be held up when the federal government tries to approve its own spending plans.

Waiting on Congress to pass its federal budget forces the District to use an unusual Oct. 1-Sept. 30 fiscal year that splits the school year, Mr. Gray testified in May. It also risks the loss of vital services during a federal government shutdown.

Mr. Issa and Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on D.C. affairs, said they were not willing to relinquish all their oversight, arguing that Congress still has a role to play. Yet local leaders hailed the May summit as a step in the right direction.

The proposal released Monday closed the loop on those talks, yet the abortion-related language likely will give local leaders pause.

City officials condemned a similar ban on locally funded abortions that President Obama conceded to Republicans in April as part of an emergency federal spending measure. Mr. Gray protested the interference on Capitol Hill, leading to his arrest later that month alongside several council members and activists.

In effect, Mr. Issa’s bill forces D.C. officials to decide whether the bill takes the fast track through a Republican-controlled House. It is the second time in recent memory that they have had to grapple with how much they are willing to pay to loosen Congress’ grip on city affairs.

Last year, Democrats withdrew a bill to give the District the voting rights it has long sought in the House of Representatives after learning of Republican plans to introduce an amendment that would eviscerate the city’s gun laws, exceeding a similar proposal in the Senate that had been widely debated among D.C. officials.

Critics said the bill would compromise public safety and lead to more gun violence in a city once routinely called the “murder capital” of the United States. Then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty supported the bill, while Mr. Gray, the council chairman at the time and a declared candidate for mayor, opposed it. The D.C. Council also was divided on the issue.

In the end, Democratic leadership said the “price was too high.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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