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Referendum is the right strategy for DC budget autonomy

On March 27, Congress' continuing resolution that appropriates federal and DC funds will expire. If Congress does not pass additional legislation by that date, it risks not only a federal government shutdown, but also shutting down the DC government. This is because unlike every other jurisdiction in the country, the District cannot spend its own local revenue without Congress first affirmatively enacting the city's budget.

Image from DC Vote.

Fortunately, the days of the District being caught in such federal budget impasses may be coming to an end. After years of urging Congress to grant the District budget autonomy, the DC Council recently adopted a new strategy on this issue.

It unanimously passed legislation to put a referendum before the voters that would amend the Home Rule Charter and give the District local budget autonomy. The referendum will be on the ballot in the city's April 23 special election.

DC Appleseed has long supported this new strategy for advancing DC democracy. In 2010, DC Appleseed proposed using this strategy to allow DC residents to elect their Attorney General, a move which was ultimately successful. Last May, I testified to the Council about other potential uses for this strategy, including budget autonomy. For several reasons, this referendum is the right strategy now for the District.

Budget autonomy is important

Unlike other states and cities, the District cannot spend the roughly $6 billion in revenue it raises every year without an act of Congress. As a practical matter, this requirement is completely unnecessary. Congress almost never changes the city's budget request. But the requirement nevertheless imposes significant burdens and costs on the District.

First, it adds about 3 months to the budget process. That creates temporary cash shortages that force the District to borrow more money and incur millions in additional interest charges. Second, the lag time between Council approval and the start of the federal fiscal year undermines the District's ability to accurately forecast revenues and expenditures. Finally, the process permits the District to be needlessly ensnared in a federal budget battle that could shut down the government.

The budget autonomy referendum would fix all of this by allowing the District to enact the local budget just as it does all other legislation. The budget would be introduced in the Council, subjected to hearings and markups, and passed after 2 readings.

After receiving mayoral approval, it would be transmitted to Congress and become law after a 30-day review period. Congress would still retain its ultimate authority to legislate for the District, but the budget could take effect without the need for affirmative congressional action. This would be an important step forward for DC democracy.

The District needs a new strategy

The District has long sought, but been unable to, obtain budget autonomy despite bipartisan support in Congress. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House committee overseeing the District, has been at the forefront with his support, along with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC).

The difficulty lies in the fact that Congress has been unable to pass a "clean" budget autonomy bill that did not also take away certain other District rights. Just last June, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) withdrew his budget autonomy bill when it became clear that it would not pass without riders undermining the Council's Home Rule prerogatives.

Riders similarly doomed bills that would have given the District's Delegate a vote in the House of Representatives. These riders have become the fatal obstacle to congressional action that would otherwise advance DC democracy.

This is not to say that such efforts on the Hill should not continue. However, it's time to explore other strategies that might produce a "clean" bill advancing DC democracy. The budget autonomy referendum is such a strategy.

New strategy has many benefits

There are several clear benefits to the budget autonomy referendum. First, it gives DC residents a meaningful role in achieving greater democracy and makes use of the city's broad authority under the Home Rule Act to make changes to that Act. The referendum also offers DC residents an opportunity to make visible to Congress the importance of this issue to the people of the District.

Second, the referendum will itself be the "clean" budget autonomy bill the District is seeking. And under the Home Rule Act itself, Congress is not permitted to amend the referendum by adding riders; instead, it must either approve it by doing nothing, or disapprove it by joint resolution.

Finally, the Home Rule Act makes it hard for Congress to disapprove the referendum. Under that Act, the referendum giving the city budget autonomy will automatically become law unless both Houses of Congress disapprove it within 35 days and the President signs that disapproval.

Even if both houses could pass the disapproval resolution, it seems highly unlikely that the President would sign it. When he decided to put DC's "Taxation Without Representation" license plates on his inauguration vehicles, President Obama issued a strong statement declaring his "willingness to fight for voting rights, Home Rule and budget autonomy for the District."

DC should move forward despite concerns

Some have raised concerns that the referendum is beyond the District's authority, or that it will undermine the city's relationship with Congress, or that it does not bring us full democracy. None of these concerns should keep the residents of the District from fully supporting the referendum.

First, no proposal for greater DC democracy has ever been or will ever be a "slam dunk" legally or politically. There were similar doubts about the soundness of the DC Voting Rights Act, but that bill received strong support and passed both Houses of Congress nonetheless—because it was the best and only viable option then available. That is true now of the referendum.

Second, the referendum is the city's way of showing its support for budget autonomy, and in no way detracts from Congress's own authority on that issue. In fact, former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA)—Issa's predecessor on the oversight committee—testified to the DC Council that Congress would not view the measure as a slight. And Rep. Jose Serrano, ranking member of the subcommittee on DC appropriations, issued a statement in favor of the referendum, calling it "democracy at its very core."

Finally, some of the top law firms in the city, and the DC Council's own general counsel, have vetted the referendum's legal underpinnings. All agree that that the measure is within the District's authority. And even though the referendum was challenged before the District's Board of Elections, the Board rejected the challenge and certified the issue for the April 23 ballot.

The road to greater democracy has always been filled with obstacles and uncertainty. That is true also for the April 23 referendum. But that referendum is now the best available step forward on that road.

Walter Smith is the Executive Director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, an independent organization that works with pro bono attorneys, business leaders, and community experts on the biggest public policy problems facing the National Capital Area. 


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Interesting timing to push this forward when once again DC politics is showing it may be rotten to the core. Notice you aren't featuring Alan's WashingtonCityPaper piece this morning on the financial dealings/influence across so many key players in this sad demonstration of "the public's business...."

by Tom M on Feb 7, 2013 1:34 pm • linkreport

@Tom M: The solution to rotten DC politics is not to give up and say DC should not have the right to run its own affairs with its own money. It's to fix the rotten DC politics and have a government worthy of DC residents.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 7, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

I kind of doubt we can expect Congress to clean up DC politics even if they are rotten. If anything it takes away one of the few bogeymen that the council can roll out as an excuse whenever someone questions them.

by Alan B. on Feb 7, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

Tom I've heard similar logic before and think it's wrongheaded .

There are scores of cities across the country involved in much worse "rottenness" than what we find here. Yet, they still manage their own affairs.

I personally don't think DC politics is rotten. Does it have its low marks...ABSOLUTELY. But it's hard to talk about how bad politics/the council and all that then pair that w/how well the city's being run. We've had a pretty good go at it for over a decade now...

by HogWash on Feb 7, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

Well, what a "state" of affairs when we all agree about the DC politics is pretty darn rotten. I'm thinking we in DC are MORE likely to end up with another control board than fiscal autonomy. But some people choose to roller skate in to the face of a hurricane. Maybe easier if/when the hurricane has passed by.... The cause I do not dispute. Timing on the other hand is to often discounted.

by Tom M on Feb 7, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

@Tom M

After watching what is happening in Virginia, I would venture to say we are doing quite a bit better than our neighbors across the Potomac... Perhaps we should disenfranchise them now too?

by Kyle-W on Feb 7, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

The "hurricane" will never pass by. Opponents of any shred of DC autonomy will always find some excuse to deny what's being offered. It's just a tactic to delay what they don't want to see happen.

by drumz on Feb 7, 2013 3:10 pm • linkreport

Maybe spitting in to the wind would be a better metaphor. Or that graphic where the mouse is flipping the "bird" at the owl that is about to grab and consume him. Maybe it felt good somehow in that last gasp. In the end, the energy was wasted....

by Tom M on Feb 7, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

First of two from today -- First Up Jim Graham: The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability held that Graham “abandoned his impartiality and demonstrated inappropriate preferential treatment” in offering his support for a particular lottery contract bidder in return for the same bidder’s withdrawal from a real estate project. That offer, the board said, broke at least three provisions of the employee code of conduct.Graham was motivated, the board said, to transfer the real estate project to a favored development firm that had given him campaign donations.

by Tom M on Feb 7, 2013 3:45 pm • linkreport

Second of two just from today -- Follow the Money: Documents stemming from a 2006 lawsuit show Thompson routed funds through Wilmot’s bank accounts to current and former city officials for unspecified consulting work. Although the records include a handful of copies of checks dated 2005 and 2006, the practice may have gone on for decades, according to testimony from the case. “I’ve known Jeff for 40 years,” Wilmot said in a deposition, “and these directives have gone on for as long as I’ve known Jeff.”

by Tom M on Feb 7, 2013 3:47 pm • linkreport

And surely congress is the pristine body who can deftly help manage DCs affairs despite them having the ability to do so now and apparently not caring what DC does with it's money.

Not to say these allegations aren't serious. It's just what does it have to do with an American city asking to not have permission from congress to pass a budget?

by drumz on Feb 7, 2013 3:56 pm • linkreport

You can ask. You can even pass a referendum that is simply and only advisory. And you think the House Majority or 60 votes in the Senate will act positively on the same exact bill to make it happen? I was born at night, but not LAST night.

by Tom M on Feb 7, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

That's all well and good. Still has nothing to do with the level of corruption in DC government and whether that has bearing on whether DC should have budget autonomy or not.

by drumz on Feb 7, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport

Tom M: It's not advisory. The Home Rule charter lets DC amend certain parts of the charter with a referendum. It can't repeal the height limit or give itself jurisdiction over the White House, but according to Appleseed and many other attorneys giving itself budget autonomy is something that can happen through this amendment process.

If the amendment passes, the House and Senate can affirmatively act to turn it down, but if either house rejects the disapproval or the President vetoes the disapproval and doesn't get overridden, the disapproval fails and the change goes into effect.

by David Alpert on Feb 7, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

Are those the same attorneys who said that the DC gun laws would withstand challenge?

by Tom M on Feb 7, 2013 4:11 pm • linkreport

This is a waste of effort. There is no need to convince Washingtonians or the DC City Council that they need budget authority. You need to convince Congress. They are not bound to the outcome of this referendum.

Spend your energy and money lobbying Congress in stead of convincing Washingtonian voters of the obvious.

by Jasper on Feb 7, 2013 4:29 pm • linkreport

I'm curious as to what, if any, plans have been made to defend this in the courts, should it come to that. District AG Irv Nathan is on record saying he does not believe their to be legal and would not give it his blessing. If the outcome were to be challenged, my understanding is Nathan would not be able to defend it in court. Seems a potentially very messy situation.

by Birdie on Feb 7, 2013 4:36 pm • linkreport


Sometimes I wonder if you people even bother to read the whole post before commenting.

The point is that Congress does generally support budget autonomy, but they cannot pass it themselves because they cannot manage to pass anything these days without being caught in gridlock.

They are not "bound" by the referendum as you say, but in the sense that they can take action to reject it. But the point of the referendum is to force them to take that action independently. Which is doubtful given what I mentioned above. It puts the onus on them.

by Ginevra on Feb 7, 2013 4:59 pm • linkreport

@ Ginevra: So you are trying to use Congress' inability to get anything done. Not pretty. However, Congress does not play games like that. They are in fact, very sensitive about such games. And they should be. DC's AG won't stand up to them.

Furthermore, what do you do if DC votes yes, and Congress gets its act together by adding an amendment to some post-office renaming bill? Then you have pissed of Congress, and set back any path towards more independence. And remember, Congress is full of Republicans who'd love to just piss of DC. Just because they can. Don't give them a reason.

I think it's rather sad that Washingtonians waste so incredibly much time on utterly useless symbolic issues. The car tags on POTUS' car. A referendum aimed as using a loophole and bypassing Congress. It won't work.

Meanwhile, a former council member is in jail for corruption, the former chairman stepped down due to a corruption investigation and the mayor is also under investigation. Not to mention several other Council members that are just not paying their taxes.

How about DC gets its act together, becomes a model transparent government and just forces the issue by being the best kid in class?

You're naive if you think you can outsmart Congress in playing dirty games.

by Jasper on Feb 7, 2013 8:39 pm • linkreport

I have not seen anyone mention the fact that the constitution clearly states that "Congress shall have exclusive jurisdiction over the District in all cases whatsoever." So, it's not like other cities. Would it not take a constitutional amendment to grant budget autonomy?

by Kit on Feb 7, 2013 9:49 pm • linkreport


"Congress shall have exclusive jurisdiction over the District in all cases whatsoever" means that Congress can choose to take as much power over the District as they want or cede as much as they want.

In '73 Congress passed the Home Rule Act ceding a bunch of their jurisdictional power to the DC government. They could always pass another law rescinding the provisions of the Home Rule Act, but they don't just get to take over those duties outlined in the Act without rescinding it.

The Home Rule Act lets DC amend the home rule charter by referendum, the lawyers behind this referendum have decided that a referendum could add budget autonomy to the charter. And Congress can either do nothing and let that happen or pass a law and smack it down.

by MLD on Feb 8, 2013 8:14 am • linkreport

It's hard to believe that for all these decades, the Disrict of Columbia has had the power to grant itself budget autonomy, but instead of doing so, chose to spend energy on statehood.

Were people really that short-sighted? Or is the actual effect of the referendum legally doubtful, so that officials in the past preferred something straightforward albeit with less chance of passing Congress, but now prefer to try something with the greater chance of passing?

@Walter and others: It would really be nice to have a followup article where the legal arguments on this question are presented so that one can better understand why this option has not been pursued until now.

by JimT on Feb 8, 2013 9:20 am • linkreport


I would argue that we have done a very good job recently. Sure, could it be better, of course, but I think every state/city can say that.

Once this thing is passed, it will take a vote in the house, and the senate, and the president signing it, to rescind. That just isn't going to happen.

I know you may not feel this is a big deal, but I feel that if the federal government shuts down, that all of a sudden my tax dollars (that pay for trash collection) would not be allowed to be used to pick up my trash. How you could not see this is beyond me.

by Kyle-W on Feb 8, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

@ Kyle-W:I would argue that we have done a very good job recently.

I am sorry. I have to add a person to my list of utterly corrupt DC Council Members:

That does not count as doing well.

by Jasper on Feb 8, 2013 9:53 am • linkreport

A huge reason we have terrible politicians in DC is that the highest office you can aspire to is Mayor of DC. Anybody who's shooting for a position in Congress goes elsewhere to seek any office.

Denying DC any autonomy or representation until it "gets it's act together" is not only against the spirit of our founding documents but also is counterproductive to the goal of DC having responsible politicians.

by MLD on Feb 8, 2013 10:04 am • linkreport

Again, I question whether you have read or understand the article.

"Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House committee overseeing the District, has been at the forefront with his support..."
I will emphasize that Issa is a conservative Republican who takes a pretty hard party line, and can only assume that if he is on board then the concept would have broad support throughout Congress.

This is not some dirty trick or loophole. It is just a way to streamline the administrative process and bypass the inevitable riders that get attached which make the bill unappealing to everyone. Congress still has the complete and transparent option to reject the bill if they want.

And to the general insinuations about corruption in DC (along with Tom M) -- this is conflating totally separate issues. I would hope that people are not *actually* suggesting that DC is better off operating under a Nanny State because it simply cannot take care of itself. Do we do this with any other cities? Surely DC is not the only corrupt government in America.

by Ginevra on Feb 8, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

@ MLD:A huge reason we have terrible politicians in DC is that the highest office you can aspire to is Mayor of DC.

No. The reason why you have terrible politicians is that you keep re-electing them, even after they've been caught. Being mayor of the Capital of the United States is a pretty decent position. It should not be a stepping stone for higher office. You forget how quickly the pyramid narrows for higher office.

@ Ginevra:"Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House committee overseeing the District, has been at the forefront with his support..."

Which is surprising, and makes me wonder what game he is playing. The man is a nutcase and I don't trust him at all.

Surely DC is not the only corrupt government in America.

No, but DC is the only corrupt government asking for budget independence. Do you think Illinois would get statehood right now if it still were a territory? Hell no.

by Jasper on Feb 8, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

You forget how quickly the pyramid narrows for higher office.

I don't forget that, I'm actively pointing out that the pyramid in DC is smaller/narrower in other places. Sorry, being the mayor of a city of 620K is not a prestige job. Do you know who the mayors of Columbus, Dallas, Jacksonville, or San Jose are? Are they important figures?

No, but DC is the only corrupt government asking for budget independence. Do you think Illinois would get statehood right now if it still were a territory? Hell no.

And yet corrupt/inept governments all across this country have the right to determine their own budget yet ours does not. Your attitude on this issue smacks of someone who already has this right and cares not about extending it to others.

So others who have this right get to have it because 200 years ago we were handing out statehood left and right, but those of us left under the jackboot for those 200 years have to earn it through some non-defined ideal of what politics should be?

by MLD on Feb 8, 2013 12:04 pm • linkreport


All irrelevant. Frankly and utterly irrelevant. Your perceptions of our governments ineptitude are meaningless. The fact of the matter is, it is a locally elected government, and we are the only city in the nation that is subject to the whims of the federal government. It is going to change when this referendum is passed, like it or not (it appears you don't)

Regarding our corrupt politicians, at least we are making progress. Ethics bills are getting passed, and if you noticed Grosso just crushed Brown in a well attended city election. Not so much can be said of Virginia. The state is trying to restrict voting rights, pulls stunts like redistricting when a black democrat leaves office for Obama's inauguration, is trying to remove the tie between road use and paying for those roads, is wasting billions of dollars on roads no one wants while there are very pressing needs elsewhere, and just last year tried to pass a law forcing doctors to rape their patients.

Oh, and the Cooch is apparently a viable candidate for Governor. That says it all to me.

You think their isn't corruption (at least as bad as Graham's) involved in the 460 road project? At least ours is a few isolated incidents, and half the state+1 isn't involved.

by Kyle-W on Feb 8, 2013 1:11 pm • linkreport

No, but DC is the only corrupt government asking for budget independence. Do you think Illinois would get statehood right now if it still were a territory? Hell no.

DC is the ONLY CITY, corrupt or not, that does not have budget independence. This is a completely separate issue from statehood. It is strictly about the ability of DC to spend its city tax revenue from its own citizens without approval from Congress and the waste that entails.

So, yes. Illinois is permitted to spend its state tax revenue without approval from Congress. Chicago is allowed to spend its own city tax revenue without approval from above. Puerto Rico, an actual territory (and no doubt corrupt one at that), does not need to acquire approval from the federal government or from Congress to spend its commonwealth tax revenue.

So -- why should DC?

by Ginevra on Feb 8, 2013 1:51 pm • linkreport

@Jasper Do you think Illinois would get statehood right now if it still were a territory? Hell no.

I'm sorry which country are we talking about? Not America for sure. Because if you think otherwise you should read "And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes" about the Oklahoma Territory and the widespread corruption there in the years prior to statehood. North Dakota and New Mexico (see:Santa Fe Ring) were equally bad. I mean this is just not connected with reality.

by David C on Feb 11, 2013 12:09 am • linkreport

@ MLD:Do you know who the mayors of Columbus, Dallas, Jacksonville, or San Jose are? Are they important figures?

No. They are also not the mayor of the Capital of the United States. They are mayors of rather bland secondary cities, often in fierce competition with other bland cities in their region or state. Also, how many of them made it on the national level? Not many.

Your attitude on this issue smacks of someone who already has this right and cares not about extending it to others.

No, I recognize the difference between having a right, and squandering it, and not having a right, and politely having to ask for it. Should DC have the right, of course. But it does not, and it won't get it by being sneaky.

@ Ginevra:Puerto Rico, an actual territory (and no doubt corrupt one at that), does not need to acquire approval from the federal government or from Congress to spend its commonwealth tax revenue.

And, you may have noticed, it has no vote in Congress, much like DC.

So -- why should DC?

DC should have the right, but it does not. So, the question is: How to get it? I do not think this referendum will help.

by Jasper on Feb 11, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

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