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Although October’s partial federal government shutdown was a tense stretch for the District, those 16 days might help ease the way for budget autonomy.
President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget is the strongest statement to date in support of greater local autonomy for Washington, D.C. For the second year in a row, he’s vowed the White House will work with Congress and Mayor Vincent Gray to provide the District local budget autonomy. This year, Obama also debuted his support for legislative autonomy.
“I’ve never seen an issue more ripe for passage than budget autonomy,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who likens the current budget experience to having the city’s local dollars caught up in “flypaper.”
As Congress neared the shutdown brink in the fall, Norton pleaded for provisions that would exempt D.C. from the melee. Unique among jurisdictions, the District needs a federal appropriation to spend its budget, even though it is largely funded by local income, sales and property taxes and fees. On Oct. 1 — the first day of the shutdown — Norton begged her Democratic colleagues to vote for a GOP carve-out that would have exempted the city.
“Our appropriators got up and spoke about the District being able to spend its own money,” she said, referring to speeches from House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C. spending. The debate shed light on the city’s balanced budget, “full faith and credit” bond ratings and huge surplus, which is now pegged at $1.75 billion.
But it remains to be seen whether that debate, and the attention it garnered for the city’s struggle, will translate into congressional action. Legislative autonomy is a long shot. A bill introduced in January by Norton to eliminate congressional review of newly passed District laws has zero co-sponsors.
The lone budget autonomy bill to make it out of committee — a measure sponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. — has seen no action since it cleared the committee in July. Issa has previously indicated Democrats are blocking the bill from coming to the floor for a vote. Norton told CQ Roll Call that the bill has “some issues, mostly technical, and we’ve not been able to move them yet.”
Budget autonomy backers have other reasons to be optimistic, especially in the Senate.