Norton Seeks Budgetary Freedom for D.C.

Posted January 30, 2007 at 6:57pm

In a move designed to lessen Congressional control over the District of Columbia, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) introduced a bill Tuesday that would allow the city to enact its own budget without oversight from Capitol Hill.

Under current law, District representatives are required to appear before Congress each year with their proposed budget, and the city cannot fund its programs until that budget is approved.

Not only does this delay progress in D.C., Norton said, but it also forces Congress to pay attention to the financial matters of a metropolitan city while there are national issues to deal with.

“This District is in a unique position,” Norton said. “Congress has been wasting time. Most Members don’t want to spend time on D.C. matters.”

The bill ranks as one of Norton’s top priorities for the District this session, perhaps second only to gaining a full House vote for D.C. residents, she said. (Davis also co-sponsored that bill, which currently awaits action in the Judiciary Committee.)

The duo scored a similar budget victory last year when Congress passed the Mid-year Budget Autonomy Act, which allows the District to spend its local funds without having to report back to Congress as part of the mid-year supplemental appropriations process.

The legislation introduced Tuesday was referred to the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where Davis serves as ranking member.

Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is “generally very supportive of District issues and giving District autonomy,” a Democratic staffer said.

But Waxman has not yet reviewed the bill, and it isn’t clear when he’ll decide to bring it up in committee, the staffer added.

Norton will push to have an early hearing on the bill, she said. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and City Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D) likely would testify.

“I think we need to hear from the horse’s mouth,” Norton said.

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who recently was appointed to oversee the subcommittee in charge of D.C. appropriations, said he could not comment until he sees the bill.

The legislation is part of Norton’s “Free and Equal D.C.” series of bills, which seek to give the city greater control over its core functions and transfer Home Rule Act provisions back to the District.

Passed in 1973, the Home Rule Act gave certain Congressional powers to the District and created the office of mayor and the City Council. However, the act didn’t grant complete authority to the city, as it also stipulated Congress must approve the city’s budget and can interfere in other city matters.

“This is the most important change in 32 years, not only because it involves a fundamental self-government right, but because of its enormous practical implications,” Norton said.

The last time Congress got involved in major D.C. matters was in 1995, with the creation of the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority — better known as the Control Board — to oversee the city government and restore its financial stability.

(The city’s debt had climbed to $722 million by that point, with little sign of recovery.)

After a strong economic turnaround, the board was dissolved in 2001. Since that time, the city’s finances have remained healthy, and Congress has approved the budget without change.

But according to Norton, even good times haven’t been easy on the city.

D.C. public schools were hit hard one year when budget approval lingered on in Congress, Norton recalled. That delay forced the school system to operate under a continuing resolution, which led to a slew of problems, including text books having to be returned to publishers, a reduction in the number of school buses, unpaid tuition payments for special education students and cuts in school programs.

The budget delay “essentially puts a stop on many programs,” Norton said. “I could spell it out in public housing. I could spell it out in many other public agencies.”

The first of Norton’s Free and Equal bills passed the House last week. That measure authorized the creation of minted commemorative quarters for D.C. and the territories.