What a Long, Strange Case: D.C. Budget Autonomy

Fight over local control pitted city government against itself

Bowser, right, and Norton spent years fighting for the D.C. Budget Autonomy Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Bowser, right, and Norton spent years fighting for the D.C. Budget Autonomy Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Jason Dick
Posted March 28, 2016 at 5:00am

Government officials in Washington spent the better part of two years fighting among themselves how to loosen Congress’ budget strings, before a local court settled the matter for them this month.  

The case centered on a disagreement within two branches of D.C. government about the legality of the local law granting the city control over its locally raised dollars, making it less dependent on the congressional appropriations process.  

In the time it took to work its way through the courts, Muriel Bowser went from City Council member to mayor, and from plaintiff to defendant in the case.  

Ultimately she switched sides, siding with council members in the suit they filed against the mayor’s office.  

Last week, as she presented her State of the District address, Bowser savored the court victory.  

“I was glad last year to break from my predecessor and stand on the side of those who are standing up with the voters,” she said.  

The D.C. government has typically been dependent on Congress to sign off on its budget, even though D.C. composes its own spending blueprint, which the president then submits to Congress with his own budget plans.  

The inability to determine how to spend even those funds raised locally, such as income taxes and fees, led to years of frustration. That culminated in the D.C. Budget Autonomy Act being put before voters in a referendum in April 2013.  

The city’s voters approved the measure with 83 percent of the vote. It took effect after passing a congressional review period in January 2014, but was left in limbo because the D.C. executive and legislative branches differed on whether it was legal.

Former Mayor Vincent Gray and Irvin B. Nathan, the city attorney general at the time, argued it was not legal because Congress still had control over D.C.’s budget.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, provided Gray and Nathan cover by saying that the D.C. Autonomy Act exceeded the powers allocated to the District as part of its Home Rule Charter. But the GAO’s announcement in January 2014 did not have the force of law.

The D.C. Council disagreed, arguing that Congress provided ways for D.C. to alter the budget process. It sued the mayor, attorney general and chief financial officer to enforce the referendum, with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson saying the council had no choice but to enforce what it saw as the will of the voters.

In May 2014, a judge struck down the budget autonomy law. The council appealed the decision. That’s when things got complicated.

First, Bowser was elected mayor of the District in November 2014 and took office in January 2015.

Second, the Office of the Attorney General went from a mayoral appointee to an elected position in November 2014.

Bowser and the newly elected Attorney General Karl A. Racine ultimately parted ways on the matter, with Bowser working with the Council to seek the court’s approval of the law, and Racine teaming up with CFO Jeffrey DeWitt in arguing the law didn’t pass legal muster.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually kicked the case back to Superior Court, and that court found on March 18 that the law would stand. Racine announced March 22 that the attorney general’s office would not file any further appeal.

In her State of the District address that day, Bowser outlined the 2017 budget she would submitting to the council and thanked the council for fighting for local control of District funds.  

“It will be the District’s first local budget since Chairman Mendelson and I won the court battle for budget autonomy,” she said. “Let me acknowledge the chairman of the council for really standing up for the voters of the District of Columbia.  

“Unlike the previous administration, I believe that when 83 percent of D.C. voters cast a ballot in favor of budget autonomy, the mayor ought to back them up,” she added.  

Of note, Bowser’s budget plan does not change the current fiscal year for the District. D.C.’s fiscal year has mirrored that of the federal government, from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, to be in line with the congressional appropriations process. City officials have long said it made more sense for the District to follow the more common municipal model of a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year.  

Congress has largely been silent on the topic. It didn’t get involved in the lawsuit as it worked its way through the court, although the House’s Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group did file amicus briefs — with Democrats dissenting — arguing that only Congress could grant D.C. budget autonomy.  

Requests for comment with the committee with the most jurisdiction over the District, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, were not returned.  

Advocates of local control have said they’re on the lookout for any congressional attempts to intervene, but have yet to hear of anything.  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in the wake of the court decision she would continue to defend the referendum and any attempts of Congress to insert itself into the process inappropriately.  

“We’re always concerned that Congress is going to interfere,” said Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote. “We hope they respect the will of D.C. voters,” she added, but then emphasized, if need be, “We’re ready for the fight.”  

Contact Dick at jasondick@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @jasonjdick.

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