D.C. Budget Autonomy Bill Held Up by Amendments

Posted August 3, 2007 at 6:31pm

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) put aside a measure to grant the District of Columbia budget autonomy last week after several Republicans proposed amendments on controversial issues such as abortion and gun control.

The committee reached a compromise, however, on a separate but related measure that lowers the Congressional review period for civil and criminal laws passed by the city’s government.

During a markup of the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act on Thursday, Members on both sides of the aisle appeared to agree on the basic premise of the bill, which would allow D.C.’s budget to go into effect without Congressional approval. But Republicans who introduced amendments argued that if Congress grants the District budget autonomy, it must ensure certain things are not funded, including abortion and enforcement of the city’s controversial ban on handguns.

When Waxman decided to pull the bill, he told panel members that more discussions are necessary to ensure the full intent of the measure remains intact.

“We’re telling them, ‘You can make your own decisions with your own public funds. Except on this and except on this and except on this,’” Waxman said of the amendments. “When you allow an area to be autonomous, even if you have the power [to step in], you don’t.”

Despite the delay, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) remained confident that the bill would return to the committee and eventually pass the House.

Norton, who co-sponsored the bill with Oversight ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.), compared Thursday’s markup to the delay when the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act first hit the House floor in March; when that measure came up, Republicans introduced a motion to recommit to repeal the city’s ban on handguns.

Democrats reworked the language in that bill and it passed in a 241-177 vote in April.

“We will fight as long as you try to impose on us restrictions you wouldn’t impose on yourself,” Norton said Thursday.

In his amendment to the budget bill, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) introduced language that would prohibit the use of public funds to enforce D.C.’s firearm ban. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) introduced the abortion-funding amendment, which would prohibit the District from paying for abortions, except under special circumstances.

Jordan expressed support for budget autonomy, adding that more Republicans would be willing to support the bill if his amendment were included.

Davis warned that if Democrats are not willing to bend on the abortion-funding issue, the bill could face serious trouble on the House floor.

“I understand the political ramifications,” Davis said. “But we have to deal with this.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) agreed.

“It’s going to be dealt with,” she said. “We either are going to deal with it here or we are going to deal with it on the floor.”

Despite the delay on the budget bill, Norton’s measure to provide the city with more legislative autonomy did manage to get through the committee on a voice vote — with a little tweaking.

The original text of the District of Columbia Legislative Autonomy Act completely eliminated the Congressional review period of all laws passed by the D.C. government (60 days for criminal laws, 30 for civil measures), but eventually those numbers were settled at 10 days.

“The District is often forced to pass emergency legislation on issues that are not emergencies,” Waxman said in his opening statement.

He later added: “Congress retains its control over the District of Columbia based [on] the District clause in the Constitution. Passage of this measure does not affect the ability of Congress to pass a D.C.-specific law and send it to the president.”

But Republican Members, including longtime D.C. supporter Davis, said the Congressional review period is helpful.

“We do have a role to play in the legislative matters of the nation’s capital,” Davis said.

As a compromise, Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), ranking member of the Oversight Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia, introduced an amendment that lowered to the waiting period to 15 calendar days.

In a gesture of further compromise, Davis moved to lower the waiting period to 10 calendar days.

The committee voted to approve the measure with the 10-day waiting period. However, the bill was held in committee until technicalities in its language are hashed out, making it unclear when the bill will reach the floor.

Marchant called the compromise “a gesture to allow Congress to retain the intent” of the waiting period while also giving D.C. “some degree of latitude.”

Norton at first expressed concern about any waiting period. She argued Congress rarely uses that power and all it serves to do is cause major headaches for city leaders.

But Norton seemed content with the eventual outcome.

“For all intents and purposes, [D.C. City] Council legislation will become law almost automatically because the review period is so short,” her office wrote in a press release.