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A few months later, Issa launched an investigation into allegations of ethics violations on the mayor’s staff despite a simultaneous effort being undertaken by local officials.
But he earned some good will in November by postponing action on a bill that would restructure the city government’s hiring practices after Council Chairman Kwame Brown asked Issa to let the council move on its own legislation, which it passed last week.
The seed of Issa’s plan to give the District of Columbia control over its own budget was planted at a May hearing.
Issa said he wanted to introduce a bill that would unlink the D.C. budget from the Congressional appropriations process, allowing the district to control its own funds like any other city and change its fiscal year to start in July, allowing it to better prepare for the school year.
Perhaps most crucially, budget independence would spare the city from the anxiety of a shutdown every time Congress appears unable to strike a spending deal.
“Wow,” was what Norton says she remembers thinking at the time.
If signed into law, the measure would be the single most important piece of legislation for D.C. since the Home Rule Act of 1973, which gave the District more autonomy.
It also could signal that while lawmakers may not be willing to grant D.C. statehood, they might agree that the city is now in good enough shape to take on the responsibility of controlling its own money.
“When he became chair, I didn’t know where he would come out on District issues because he didn’t have much of a history,” Norton said. “And true to form, he has been unpredictable.”
Given the GOP’s history of using D.C. as a petri dish of sorts for social policy riders, Democrats were wary.
“I think he’s shocked a lot of people,” said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who in the 111th Congress was chairman to Issa’s ranking member.
Confidence in D.C. Finances
Whatever Issa’s motivations, external circumstances are working in his favor.
Nearly 16 years ago, D.C. was spiraling toward bankruptcy. Despite local officials’ concerns about Congressional paternalism, even Norton endorsed taking away the reins of the city’s finances from the mayor and placing them in the hands of an outside board.
The “control board” worked, and the city’s finances rebounded to the point where the board was disbanded in 2001. The District government has produced balanced budgets in each fiscal year since then, and experts say its finances are now run better than most cities.
“I guarantee you that [Issa] would not be talking about budget autonomy if he did not believe in the leadership of the city,” Brown said. “Why would he go out on a limb to talk about budget autonomy for leaders … he thought were running the city into the ground?”
“This is the cold logic of a smart man hearing every witness say, ‘These people manage their budget better than anybody we know,’” Norton said.
And then there are the federal government’s finances.