- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2012

The District’s non-voting member of Congress was put in a tough spot last 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, 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 E. 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 an about-face 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 Oversight and Government Reform Committee, 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.

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

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

The advent of the bill, spurred on by advocacy groups like D.C. Vote and D.C. Appleseed, forced Mrs. Norton and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray to revisit the feasibility and politics of the tactic, which had been proposed by advocates months earlier before the council pulled the trigger last week.

In the past year, Mr. 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.

Nonetheless, he has some reservations about the new legislation. On Friday, Mr. Gray said he wants it to be clear that he supports the concept — as the leader of the city, he wants to be able to spend local funds.

“I just don’t see how anybody can come to the conclusion that we have the authority to make that decision for ourselves,” he said. “I don’t see it.”

Mr. Mendelson acknowledged that some people think 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.”

As for Mr. Gray, although he is not quite convinced the move is the right one, he is not looking to create a rift with city lawmakers.

“Especially with Mendelson,” he said, “because I work very well with Mendelson.”

Relationships between politicians on this issue get even trickier with a legal opinion from D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan in the mix. The opinion, which Mr. Nathan’s office has deemed “legally privileged” and not available for public inspection, raises concerns about a legal challenge to the referendum.

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

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