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Voters Pass D.C.'s Budget Autonomy Referendum, Many Ask 'Now What?'

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Norton and other D.C. officials were not wild about the budget referendum included on Tuesday’s special election ballot. The measure passed with 83 percent of the vote.

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.

Since the grass-roots push to obtain budget control began and councilmembers expressed their support for putting a charter amendment before voters, some skeptics, including Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, have wondered whether the initiative would pass constitutional and legal muster.

They and others have also wondered whether the referendum would override the work of congressional lawmakers over the past year and a half to pass a formal budget autonomy bill through Congress, an effort spearheaded by Issa.

Issa told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that a budget autonomy bill was almost ready to move through the legislative pipeline, but he didn’t specify whether it still contained language that had derailed previous iterations: a ban on local funding for abortions.

He insisted that the bill would receive city officials’ support and win the president’s signature, so the District would no longer have to worry about the uncertainty surrounding the referendum.

“The mayor won’t risk changing [the city’s] budget. He will be advised to wait, and if he is forced to go forward, undoubtedly he’d face legal challenges,” Issa predicted.

Issa also said that Congress, with its power over the District, could simply insert a rider into any piece of must-pass legislation that would simply invalidate the referendum entirely, though Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in a statement she hasn’t seen any concerted effort yet on that front.

Mendelson, in an interview with CQ Roll Call, said he was hopeful for a happy ending.

“I view the referendum as pushing the ball along,” he said. “I’m perfectly fine with Congress stepping in and trying to do something affirmatively. Part of the next step is continuing conversations with various representatives and ... next year, preparing our own budget.”

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