Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Budget Autonomy

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.

Government


How much federal money does DC actually get?

Opponents of DC budget autonomy often cite Congressional funding for the city's budget as justification of federal meddling in DC affairs. But it turns out several states rely on federal largesse even more than the District.


Photo by zzzack on Flickr.

A Congressional appropriations subcommittee recently passed a $637 million payment to the District that includes a number of provisions detailing how the city can and cannot spend money.

That bill will now make its way to the House appropriations committee, and then to the entire House and Senate for final passage. At each stage members of Congress may offer amendments to further restrict the District's authority in matters such as needle exchange, abortion, and gun control.

Many members of Congress believe it is their duty to micromanage the District's local budget. Representative Darrel Issa of California, who chairs the House committee that is primarily responsible for the District, has said that Congress has an obligation to oversee how DC spends its money because "federal taxpayer dollars fund a large portion of the District's budget."

Many people readily agree with that statement. It seems to make sense. Of course the federal government pays for the operations of the federal district. This argument is also often cited by opponents of DC voting rights, who say that DC residents shouldn't have a vote in Congress because they are recipients of so much federal government largesse.

Given these facts, it seems prudent to question just exactly what percentage of the District's budget is paid using federal funds. What exactly qualifies as a "large portion"? 50%? 75%?

Not even close. Federal funds in fact make up only about 25% of the District's local budget.

Of course, having the feds pick up the tab for one-quarter of the city government's expenditures is nothing to sneeze at. Certainly that represents a greater percentage of the local budget than any other state government, right?

Wrong.

The US Census Bureau calculates the total federal funds transferred to state and local governments, and the total revenues collected in each state. The latest available figures (2008) reveal that Mississippi leads the nation with 35% of its combined state and local budget revenue coming from the federal government. Louisiana is a close second at 34%, followed by New Mexico and South Dakota at 27% each.

The District government receives the same percentage of federal funds as Alabama, Montana, Vermont, and West Virginia. In all, 8 states receive as much or more aid than the District. The complete list can be found below.

StateTotal state &
local revenues
Federal fundsPercent
MS23.68.235%
LA44.215.134%
SD5.21.427%
NM16.94.527%
AL31.88.125%
DC11.83.025%
WV13.73.425%
MT8.52.125%
VT6.11.525%
AR19.64.824%
ME10.82.624%
KY29.57.024%
RI9.42.122%
WY9.42.122%
OK26.85.922%
MI68.614.922%
MO42.29.122%
ID10.52.221%
ND6.71.421%
OR29.05.920%
AZ47.79.720%
SC35.47.020%
NC77.215.120%
MN45.78.919%
HI11.92.319%
IA25.04.819%
GA73.014.019%
IN46.48.619%
OH100.918.719%
TN48.08.818%
NY243.944.718%
MD45.48.218%
WI41.77.418%
NH9.61.718%
PA109.719.017%
TX196.533.017%
IL104.217.317%
UT23.03.817%
KS22.73.716%
CA354.057.716%
FL148.023.316%
NE17.82.816%
DE8.41.315%
MA73.511.215%
WA63.29.315%
CT33.34.714%
VA58.2814%
NJ85.911.513%
AK18.82.413%
CO47.15.612%
NV20.02.312%
All dollar figures in billions.

Clearly, multiple other states receive a larger percentage of their budget from Congress without any of the oversight that accompanies DC's role as capital city.

Mr. Issa may ultimately be right that Congress has the authority and responsibility to exercise a higher level of oversight regarding the District, but if so it is not because of the false belief that the local government is funded to the hilt with federal dollars.

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