Image from DC Vote.

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.

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.