D.C. Officials Renew Push for Greater Autonomy

Posted November 18, 2009 at 6:27pm

D.C. officials are renewing their push for greater autonomy, pressing Members to pass two bills that would eliminate a Congressional review process they say disrupts the city’s operations and wastes local dollars.

Though the city took over some of its own affairs in 1974, its laws and budget still need a stamp of approval from Congress. The city’s budget is passed in an appropriations bill, while its laws go through a 60-day legislative review period.

That process forces the city to conform to Congress’ fiscal year and sometimes to wait months for needed legislation to go into effect. For years, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has introduced two bills to fix it — one that allows the District to pass its own budget and another that gets rid of the legislative review period. So far, neither has made it to the House floor.

But on Wednesday, Norton and D.C. officials argued that the bills should be noncontroversial because they are largely technical, preserving Congress’ control over the city’s affairs. Congress has also made little use of the passive review process; it hasn’t struck down a D.C. law for almost 20 years and usually passes the city’s budget largely untouched.

“These bills simply provide the District the same flexibility and autonomy afforded other jurisdictions around the country, to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of services — a fundamental responsibility of government,— Mayor Adrian Fenty told Members on Wednesday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia. The current system, he said, only “wastes time, money and resources.—

Democrats hope to push Norton’s bills through the subcommittee before the end of the year, but subcommittee Chairman Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said he hasn’t yet scheduled a markup of the bills. Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, said his group would be working in the coming weeks to educate Members on the bills and gain support for their passage.

Republicans, meanwhile, seem strongly opposed to the idea. At Wednesday’s hearing, subcommittee ranking member Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) repeatedly invoked the Constitution’s “District clause,— which grants Congress the power to “exercise exclusive legislation— over the District. The city, he said, is a unique jurisdiction and Congress has a responsibility to oversee its affairs.

“I want to applaud you for the successes you have,— he said, “but I also want to hold your feet to the fire for the things not going so well.—

But Fenty, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D) and other officials argued that Congress has no interest is the vast majority of the District’s budget and laws. The review process, they said, has become unnecessary and bureaucratic, wreaking havoc on the city’s operations for no apparent reason. Furthermore, officials have passed a balanced budget for 14 years, a large leap from the financial trouble in 1995 that almost caused the city to become insolvent (and jump-started several institutional controls).

Gray estimated he spent half his time passing repetitive laws because of the legislative review period. Since normal bills can’t be enacted until after the Congressional review period, the council often passes “emergency— legislation as well. The latter doesn’t need Congressional approval and goes into effect for 90 days, providing a stopgap measure while the city waits for the review period on the permanent law to end. In the past decade, two-thirds of the bills that have passed the council have been emergency or temporary legislation.

Officials also have to work around an irregular budget process. Congress’ authority over D.C.’s budget means the city is tied to the federal appropriations cycle, guaranteeing a four-month lag between local approval of the budget and federal approval.

That process forces the city to rely on revenue estimates completed seven months before the start of the fiscal year, according to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. Such old data, he said, mean a greater chance of faulty estimates and last-minute budget shortfalls.

On Wednesday, Norton called such difficulties the result of an archaic system. Congress, she said, should complete the “last two steps— of the Home Rule Act of 1973 that gave the city its own government.

“I don’t think any American would be proud of the fact that a jurisdiction that raises $6 billion on its own can’t spend a dime unless Congress says ‘Yes you may,’— she said.

But passing the bills will be a challenge, especially in the wake of the controversy over the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act. The bill, which would give the city its first full seat in the House, passed the Senate only to stall in the House because of a poison pill amendment that would change the city’s gun laws. Democratic leaders are considering tying it to a must-pass spending bill, but so far they haven’t been successful.

At Wednesday’s hearing, D.C. officials tried to distance the autonomy bills from their efforts to get Congressional representation, emphasizing the fact that the bills won’t affect Congress’ authority to change laws or interfere with their budget. But Republicans appeared to see both efforts in the same vein.

“The District of Columbia is not a state,— Chaffetz said, “and it is dealt with differently.—