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Ballot Initiative Could Alter District-Congress Relationship

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Norton said she is pleased to hear that members of Congress are open to the concept of greater D.C. autonomy.

The hyper-local special election for a D.C. Council seat next week isn’t likely to get much attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

But they might want to monitor the referendum question on the April 23 ballot that could profoundly change how Congress does its work, as well as test the extent to which it is willing to exert its power over the federal city.

The referendum, which is expected to pass overwhelmingly, would amend the D.C. charter to “permit the Council to adopt the annual local budget for the District of Columbia government; ... permit the District to spend local funds in accordance with each Council approved budget act; and ... permit the Council to establish the District’s fiscal year.”

In other words, it would unlink D.C.’s budget from the congressional appropriations process, sparing the city from shutdown anxiety each time Congress nears a stalemate on a spending deal, and in general representing a new frontier in D.C.’s path to self-determination.

“The [referendum] puts [the] people of the District at the forefront of our fight for control over our own local tax dollars,” James Jones, the communications director for advocacy group DC Vote, said earlier this year.

For lawmakers on Capitol Hill who handle local affairs and the D.C. portion of the appropriations process, budget autonomy would in one swoop eliminate a major piece of their legislative portfolios.

Many of them are just learning about the issue as the referendum vote draws near, after President Barack Obama included sample D.C. budget autonomy language in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal. Their comments indicate they are still figuring out what it would mean for them.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. — the newly installed chairman of the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, which includes D.C.’s budget — suggested he supported budget autonomy in principle but questioned the referendum tactic.

“I think if they want to change the relationship, it would be better to have Congress do that,” Crenshaw said of D.C. residents voting to take the reins of the city’s budget. “If you do away with this kind of budget authority ... that has ramifications and you don’t know what the ending’s gonna be.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was tapped this year to be the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C., said during a speech last week at Howard University that he was “of two minds.”

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