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It’s looking likely Washington, D.C., residents will have a chance to vote early next year on whether to amend the city charter by unlinking the local budget from the congressional appropriations process, but the city’s key congressional advocates worry the effort will only backfire.
On Wednesday — one day after the D.C. Council unanimously approved legislation to place the referendum on ballots during the next scheduled election — Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., used his first public comments regarding the referendum to question whether it would pass legal muster.
“If D.C. residents are being asked to vote on a legal, constitutional question, it isn’t a fair question to place to the people,” he said. “They are saying they want it, but it’s a legal decision on whether or not they can have it without congressional action.”
Proponents of the referendum, including the D.C. Council’s general counsel and activist groups such as DC Vote, say they are within their legal rights: The Home Rule Act of 1973 says nothing to prohibit the city from amending its charter to let D.C. spend its money without congressional approval.
A charter amendment through referendum, supporters say, would be the only way to achieve budget autonomy without policy riders, such as restrictions on local abortion funding. Issa, the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the city’s governance, has been working since last year on a budget autonomy bill in Congress.
Critics of the referendum say that only Congress has the authority to grant the District budget autonomy. For D.C. to give itself the power to spend its own money, they say, would be violating the Antideficiency Act, which forbids federal entities — such as the federal city of D.C. — from spending funds before they are appropriated, in this case by Congress.
Issa, who in the past has described his role as somewhat akin to being D.C.’s “governor,” agrees with this legal assessment.
“What we want to do is give the District of Columbia the ability to spend their own raised funds with the recognition that, just like a state, they can’t raise funds that haven’t been appropriated by the government,” Issa said. “Currently they don’t have that authority, and no referendum can create that.”
Also, Issa predicts that the referendum’s appearance on a special-election ballot this spring would impede his ability to continue advocating for budget autonomy in the 113th Congress.