Congress unlikely to block D.C.'s budget autonomy

Former Representative Tom Davis testifies at D.C. Council in support of D.C. Budget Autonomy Act and referendum Friday.

“Congress won’t block D.C. budget autonomy.”

That was the message from a former Republican representative testifying Friday at a D.C. Council public hearing on a proposed charter amendment.

If passed by the Council and approved by voters through a ballot referendum, the law would allow the District to spend local tax dollars without congressional approval.

“There seems to be wide bipartisan agreement that this is the right answer, but things just haven’t seemed to move,” says former Representative Tom Davis, (R-Va.).

At the public hearing, Davis told D.C. Council members that Congress supports budget autonomy, giving the District control over its municipal funds.

“This is not adverse to Congress,” says Davis. “This is not confrontational. The city is just saying while you’re dealing with these better issues, we need permission to move along.”

On Capitol Hill, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has sought consensus with Republicans like Darrell Issa, Eric Cantor and Bob McDonnell expressing some support.

But through a charter amendment, D.C. budget autonomy would become law after 35 days. That is, if Congress does not overturn it.

“Given what’s been happening in the political environment on Capitol Hill right now, we think we need to have this as another track in achieving budget autonomy,” says James Jones of D.C. Vote.

D.C. Council members support the approach, reassured by local legal experts.

“Now Congress could have prohibited you from doing this, but it didn’t and since it didn’t, because this is such an important issue, Council ought to use authority that is has,” says Walter Smith.

But not everyone is on board with the plan. Some argue the District should keep its eyes on the prize: voting rights and statehood. They say anything else is a distraction.

“While we pursue a resolution on Capitol Hill, this referendum makes us look disorganized, fragments our efforts and becomes yet one more distraction from the real issue of achieving equal rights through statehood,” says Michael D. Brown, (D) D.C. Shadow Senator.

Meanwhile, others warn D.C. leaders must do more education and communication with new members of Congress about what budget autonomy means.

“Typically what takes place is a staffer in the office goes to the boss to brief their boss on what the issue is and it's typically framed as ‘Hey, Planned Parenthood, the National Right to Life Committee, the NRA, they're score carding this vote,” says Patrick Mara of the D.C. Republican Committee.

There’s also a concern that if this referendum is placed on a ballot during a special election, voter turnout will be very low, giving opponents of budget autonomy ammunition to shoot the concept down.