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Even though everyone expected D.C. voters to overwhelmingly approve a referendum unlinking the local budget from congressional oversight in Tuesday’s special election, nobody seems to know what to expect next.
Some local officials and activists claim the measure, which passed with 83 percent, has legal standing. Others think the referendum route could run afoul of the law, making the “what comes next?” question a nonstarter.
It’s “premature to speculate,” was the phrase used Wednesday by both Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Republicans, and Caley Gray, communications director for Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government Chairman Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.
And in another wrinkle, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., claimed on Wednesday to have his own budget autonomy bill nearly ready for introduction, a measure he said could pass the House in the time it would take Congress to complete the 35-day review period of the referendum itself.
As for the immediate future, logistically speaking, there is a clear path forward.
Once the District Board of Elections and Ethics certifies the results of the vote on the referendum — which would allow D.C. to set its own fiscal calendar and approve its own budget — D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson will sign a memo to be transmitted to Congress.
That’s when the countdown clock begins. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have 35 legislative days to review the referendum language; any action to overturn it must be taken during that window. A disapproval resolution would have to be passed by both chambers and then signed into law by the president.
During such a busy legislative session, however, that’s not likely to happen, meaning what’s known as D.C. budget autonomy would become law.
Over in the John A. Wilson Building, the D.C. Council and the mayor, along with other officials including the city’s chief financial officer, will have to iron out the details of how to make budget autonomy a reality.
On Capitol Hill, the ball is in leadership’s court, said a source within District government.
“The District’s people have spoken,” the source said. “After the 35-day passive approval period, Congress has to decide how it wants to handle this.”
The question comes down to whether influential lawmakers, particularly appropriators and those in leadership positions, support not just the concept of budget autonomy — many of them do — but whether they agree with the process by which it was achieved.