Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Budget Autonomy

Roads


The war on Dana Milbank's car

"DC doesn't deserve self-rule until it... lets Dana Milbank break traffic laws." That's the message from the Washington Post's columnist today.

The idea that DC might be entitled to govern its own affairs, but only if it shapes up in some way that happens to appeal to the writer, is a sadly common refrain from political commentators. Though governors of many states have been actually convicted of corruptionmost recently, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for allegedly selling his influence to a dietary supplement maker in exchange for personal giftsmany say the District doesn't deserve autonomy because there's a campaign finance investigation into our mayor. (Or because Ward 8 votes for Marion Barry.)

Today's Milbank column is a new low in this trope, even compared to the one he wrote last year where he objected to budget autonomy because the city was making all taxis switch to a uniform red paint job.

Apparently, Dana Milbank has been breaking a number of traffic laws, such as not fully stopping at a stop sign, or not fully stopping before turning right on red. He admits he's broken these rules, but rather than suggesting they be changed, he calls efforts to enforce them a "startling abuse of power," an "appalling overreach," and "like a banana republic."

The column is also a new low in the tired "war on cars" meme, which keeps popping up for one reason: Representatives of AAA Mid-Atlantic, the region's local branch of the national auto club, repeat it every chance they get. And with good reason: it gets quoted. It revs people who drive aggressively, but think they're being safe, into a frenzy of blaming the government for daring to suggest that their behavior might be dangerous.

Fix problems, don't attack all enforcement

That's not to say DC's camera system is perfect. A recent report from the District's Office of Inspector General exposed some real problems with the program. For example, sometimes officials couldn't tell which of multiple cars was speeding, and sometimes improperly decided which one would get a ticket. This shouldn't happen. Authorities need to be very confident they have the right car, and if they aren't, they shouldn't give a ticket. (According to police, these problems have already been fixed or are in the process of being fixed.)

However, Milbank isn't saying he's been the victim of any of these errors. He's not saying the law should be changed, but rather, not enforced. (He does allege some other instances where a ticket appeal was denied improperlyand if true, that's also wrong.)

The Post editorial board had a much more level-headed response to the IG report, writing, "The widespread and consistent enforcement of traffic laws made possible by photo enforcement has caused drivers to slow down in the District and obey the rules. While it is important to fine-tune the system to make it as fair and accurate as possible, suggestions to limit or curtail the program should be rejected."

Yes, safety is important

I agree with Milbank, AAA, and others that the camera program can target safety even better than it does. The strongest argument for enforcement is where pedestrians or cyclists are at risk. These vulnerable road users have little recourse against aggressive driving. There are many places in the District where people speed, turn right on red without looking, or just plain fail to yield around significant numbers of pedestrians. Residents of those neighborhoods can often tell you just where the bad spots are.

There should be lower fines, but more cameras, so that people know they're going to get caught doing something illegal, but each incident can be more minor. Criminology research has shown that more frequent enforcement with lower severity changes people's behavior more than random, occasional, high-severity punishment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson alleges that not fully stopping at a stop sign or before turning right on red isn't a real safety issue. WTOP's Ari Ashe tried to research this, and found that crashes involving right turns on red aren't that frequent. However, the crashes that do occur tend to cause injuries.

AAA used to agree. During meetings of 2012 task force on cameras which DC Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened, AAA's John Townsend said the organization fully supported stop sign and red light cameras. "Complete cessation of movement" is the legal standard, and Townsend said they agreed with that. Now, that seems to have changed, and maybe slowing down mostly, but not entirely, is OK.

How do you stop unsafe right turns on red?

The problem is that it's hard to draw a line other than "actually stopping" that protects pedestrians. For speeding, our society has generally tolerated driving up to 10 mph over the limit, and now drivers come to expect that they have a 10 mph buffer. But the consequence is that even on residential streets with 30 mph speed limits, people feel justified driving 40. A pedestrian will survive a crash at 30 mph 70 percent of the time; at 40 mph, it's only 20 percent.

So should it be OK to turn right without stopping as long as you're going under 2 mph? 5? 10? When will we get to the point when whipping around the corner at moderate speed is considered acceptable (many already think it is), and if you hit a pedestrian, "I didn't see him" is enough to get off with no consequence?

Behaviors that drivers intuitively think are safe enough aren't necessarily. The challenge of a camera program is to convince a large group of people that something they've been doing for a long time is actually kind of dangerous. There's always going to be a gray zone of what is and isn't dangerous, but people are always going to want to push that envelope to excuse more behavior.

They'll insist that the program is about money, not safety, as many do. AAA will tell them it's not their fault. They'll craft biting turns of phrase to criticize the government, as Milbank did, or suggest DC doesn't deserve statehood because of it, or even argue that the District is "like the Soviet East" because locally-elected representatives passed laws and want more freedom from an overbearing central governmentwait, what?

What's that about statehood?

But Milbank's statehood point is more apt than he likely realized. Even when Democrats held the White House, House of Representatives, and a supermajority in the Senate in 2009, they didn't pass statehood for DC, or even budget autonomy. Republicans talk about the value of local control, then legislate their values for District residents who have no say in the matter.

For some in the political classes, democracy is a great idea in theory, but when it comes to giving up one's own control, ideology often loses out. Milbank is pointing out a real reason DC will have a hard time winning more autonomy. It's not because the government is behaving badly. Rather, it's that for the people who hobnob with members of Congress, it's more convenient to have their friends calling the shots for the Districtso they don't have to do something as pedestrian as drive carefully enough to protect pedestrians on the road.

Cross-posted at the Washington City Paper.

Government


Vote for the budget autonomy referendum on April 23

Besides the race for DC Council at large on April 23, DC residents will have the opportunity to vote on a charter amendment that would free the District from having to submit its budget to Congress and wait for approval before being able to spend local tax money raised right here in DC. We hope residents vote yes on this amendment.


Photo by l'ennui d'ennui on Flickr.

It would free the District from members of Congress attaching riders to score political points back home while trampling on DC residents' right to self-government in local affairs. It would free the District from the threat of having to shut down basic public services if the federal government shuts down.

In the comments on a guest post we ran in February by DC Appleseed's Walter Smith, several readers expressed a belief that a referendum would just be advisory, that Congress would not follow our request, and it's a waste of time. This is incorrect. The referendum is not advisory at all.

If it passes, DC will have amended its own charter, which it has the power to do. It will no longer have wait for Congress to approve its budget before spending local tax dollars. Congress could block the amendment from taking effect, but to do that, both houses of Congress would have to act.

Congress can also always pass laws forcing DC to do things in the future, or taking away DC's autonomy, but again, it would require an affirmative act of Congress (and the President could veto such changes).

Besides, there are both Democrats and Republicans who support this. They can't get a clean bill through Congress to give us the right, but by this method, they don't have to; all they have to do is get Congress not to interfere. That's not so hard.

Why does DC have this power?

The Home Rule Act, which Congress passed in 1973, has several sections. Title IV, the main part, sets up the DC locally-elected government and its powers and structure.

Title III section 303 says that DC can amend any part of Title IV with three exceptions:

  • 401(a), which says "There is established a Council of the District of Columbia; and the members of the Council shall be elected by the registered qualified electors of the District";
  • 421(a), "There is established the Office of Mayor of the District of Columbia; and the Mayor shall be elected by the registered qualified electors of the District";
  • all of section C, which relates to the judiciary.
The budget process, which DC wants to change, is in section D. That's not on the list. Therefore, lawyers supporting the referendum conclude, DC is within its rights to try to amend that part of the charter.

Congress also made a specific list of things DC can't do without Congressional approval, such as changing the height limit, imposing a commuter tax, exercising any power over the zoo, or changing the way the judiciary operates. Another section of the law prohibits charter amendments from giving DC power over these things. The budget process is not on this list either.

(Congress was really quite nervous about what DC would do with power over the criminal laws; another provision blocks the DC Council from changing the criminal laws for the first 4 years of Home Rule.)

There is one provision which makes some lawyers doubt whether the referendum is legal. That's section 603, which says in part,

(a) Nothing in this act shall be construed as making any change in existing law, regulation, or basic procedure and practice relating to the respective roles of the Congress, the President, the federal Office of Management and Budget, and the Comptroller General of the United States in the preparation, review, submission, examination, authorization, and appropriation of the total budget of the District of Columbia government.
Wait, doesn't that mean nothing can change with the budget process?

But what is "this act"? That's the 1973 Home Rule Act. This provision doesn't say that DC can't change the budget process by amendment, but rather than in 1973, when the act passed, Congress didn't intend to revamp the budget process at the time.

As DC Vote chairman John Bouker said in his testimony to the DC Council,

Section 603(a) is not framed as a "limitation" on the Council's authority, as is the case with some of the other provisions in Section 603. Instead, it is a rule of construction which clarifies that, at the time of passage in 1973, "[n]othing in the Act shall be construed" to change then-existing law regarding the District's budget process.
Supportive lawyers note that Congress went to great lengths to enumerate the parts of the charter DC couldn't change, like all of section C on the judiciary, so if they wanted to keep the budget process sacrosanct, why wouldn't they have listed section D as well? It doesn't make a lot of sense to be extremely clear about which parts DC can't amend and then have a subtle additional part with language that sounds like it refers to 1973.

Some others don't see it this way. But ultimately it's in Congress' hands. The DC government believes it's legal and, if the referendum passes, will operate on that basis. If Congress wants DC to still have to submit its budget, both houses can pass a resolution to say so. Since there are leaders on both sides of the political aisle who do support the idea, Congress will most likely not step in.

Even if some lawyers and judges disagree, the courts won't intervene, because Congress is probably the only body with standing to sue, explained Smith. You have to be harmed by something to sue to stop it, and only Congress' power over the budget will change. But Congress won't sue because it doesn't have to; it could just pass a resolution to stop the change. Which it won't do.

Essentially, this referendum shifts the burden from one where Congress has to act (very hard to achieve) to one where it simply has to not act (far easier). DC voters can take this step knowing that Congress almost certainly won't act, and by voting for this amendment, they will gain an important element of self-government.

Government


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 nonethelessbecause 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 committeetestified 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.

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