- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Republican-run House of Representatives is weighing legislation that would bar the Democrat-led D.C. government from spending local taxes without congressional approval.

Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, said the House is crafting legislation to spell out that the city must submit its budget to Congress.

For the first time in 40 years, D.C. officials had planned to spend local tax dollars this year without first having Congress approve the District’s budget. A D.C. Superior Court ruling in March upheld the 2013 Budget Autonomy Act, which city voters overwhelmingly approved to allow D.C. leaders to spend local funds without congressional consent.

But several legal experts testified Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Committee that the city’s budget autonomy law is invalid under the Constitution and that its autonomy under the 1973 Home Rule Act is limited.

“Provisions of the Budget Autonomy Act that attempt to change the federal government’s role in the District’s budget process have no legal effect,” Edda Emmanuelli Perez, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Office, told the committee.

Only an act of Congress can allow the District to manage its own finances, she said, citing the federal Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the federal government from spending any money that has not already been appropriated. She added that the Home Rule Act also prohibits the District from budget autonomy.

SEE ALSO: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to cut 155 state fees, save $60 million over five years

In addition, a lawyer who helped draft the original Home Rule Act noted that Congress intentionally left out any provision that would allow the District to have authority over its own budget.

“The original committee that drafted Home Rule was not predisposed to granting D.C. much authority,” Jacques DePuy, former counsel for the House committee that drafted the law, testified on Thursday.

Even a former attorney general for District agreed that the Budget Autonomy Act has no legal standing.

“In my view, the [D.C.] Council’s Budget Autonomy Act is null and void, and implementation of that legislation will put D.C. officeholders and their action in legal jeopardy,” former D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan told the committee.

In Thursday’s hearing, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson didn’t comment on the Budget Autonomy Act’s legality, but instead spoke to the broader need for budget autonomy in the District, saying the city manages its budget better than Congress does.

“Though our financial health is sound, our financial management is hampered in many ways the federal appropriations process,” the at-large Democrat said.

He said that tying the District’s budget, which is usually approved in May, to the federal budget, which can be approved months later, leaves a gap in funding that costs the city money. And the chances of Congress passing a budget by the end of September is slim, making the gap even greater.

In fact, Congress has passed a budget before the end of the fiscal year only three times since 1990, causing the District to have to borrow money to cover the shortfalls.

“The impact of this on the local economy was substantial,” Mr. Mendelson said. “Unable to operate under an approved budget results in hiring delays, lost revenues and untimely procurements, all of which meant additional costs to the District.”

He said that short-term borrowing costs forced the District to spend an extra $3 million in interest payments that could have been avoided if the city could have accessed its own money.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress and a fierce advocate of budget autonomy, called out Republicans for defying a founding principle of the party: to limit the authority of the federal government in favor of local government.

“Control over the dollars raised by local taxpayers is central to local control, one of the oldest principles of American government and a much cited principle of congressional Republicans,” she said.

For the District government, budget autonomy means that it will be able to share the same rights as every other local government including removing the threat of a government shutdown.

“And for the federal government generally, it means that the municipal services it relies on to function will not cease during a federal shutdown,” said Ms. Norton, a Democrat.

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