As House Republican sources express displeasure at the D.C. Council's decision to pursue budget autonomy on its own, a senior House Democrat is lauding the new strategy.
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which oversees the D.C. budget, released a statement today in support of the Council's plan to pursue a referendum that would amend the District charter to unlink D.C.'s budget from the Congressional appropriations process.
Apart from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Republican spokesmen, Serrano is the first lawmaker on Capitol Hill to weigh in.
"By moving to conduct a referendum and amend their charter, the Council will be working within the powers it has been given by the Home Rule Act," Serrano said in the statement. "Through this process, we will see the direct expression of the D.C. people's desire for more direct control over their own affairs. This is democracy at its very core. The process that they have laid out is transparent and fair, and should be respected by Congress once it has taken place."
Speaking with Roll Call after the release of his statement, Serrano brushed aside concerns that the referendum could jeopardize negotiations with Congressional Republicans over legislation to grant the city budget autonomy. He said Congress has shown a consistent unwillingness to grant D.C. expanded rights without a catch, such as restrictions on local abortion funding or rollbacks of the city's gun laws.
"I can't say I'm confident [in a Congressional budget autonomy bill] because history shows that Republicans don't want to give D.C. autonomy," Serrano said. "If we wait around for Congress to do something, we might go back to the days where it won't let D.C. do anything."
If the D.C. Council by the end of this year passes a bill authorizing the referendum - and it likely will, since all councilmembers are co-sponsors - residents will have a chance to vote on it during the next special election, which is likely to take place as early as April. If the referendum passes, Congress will have 35 days to vote to reject the outcome. If Congress fails to take such action, D.C. would be able to set its own fiscal calendar and control its own local funds.
Local officials support budget autonomy and are heartened by the momentum that's built around the issue over the past year. Both chambers came close twice to marking up budget autonomy legislation before the they were derailed by policy riders that Democrats and D.C. officials found odious, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has become an unlikely champion for moving the issue forward.
But this very momentum on Capitol Hill is the reason some D.C. officials and Congressional allies feel the D.C. Council's move is ill-advised. While advocates say the referendum approach would not detract from efforts in Congress, critics think it could send the wrong message about the District's appreciation for the lawmakers who have expended political capital to help it. There are also concerns that the referendum could be challenged in court, ultimately making the exercise somewhat futile.
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