WASHINGTON — A leading House Republican has introduced a new bill that would give the District of Columbia more control over its municipal budget, a move that creates more uncertainty around a referendum approved by district voters that would do many of the same things.
The bill from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would allow the city to set its own fiscal year and to spend local tax dollars on its own if Congress doesn’t approve the local budget in time. It would also allow the city government to continue functioning in the event of a federal shutdown. Issa, who chairs the House committee that oversees the district, introduced the bill late Tuesday, and on Wednesday, the committee voted unanimously to send it to the full House.
“These simple reforms will improve the financial management of the District of Columbia government, particularly in regard to protecting schools and other critical services in the D.C. government when Congress and the president can’t reach agreement on federal funding,” Issa said in a statement.
The referendum, which was approved overwhelmingly this spring, is broader in scope, allowing the city full budget autonomy — the ability to spend its local tax dollars without congressional approval under any circumstances.
The referendum will be added to the city charter after a congressional review period expires as early as this week. But House Republicans and some city officials have cast doubt on whether the referendum has the force of law. It would not take effect until Jan. 1, and Congress could still move to invalidate it after the review period expires. It could also be challenged in court as unconstitutional because it takes power away from Congress.
Advocates for self-rule have long pushed for the district to gain more control over its municipal budget, saying the city, with its recent track record of fiscal responsibility, should not be in thrall to a dysfunctional Congress. The city brings in around $7 billion a year in local tax revenue and has balanced its budget for more than 15 consecutive years, ending the last fiscal year with a $417 million surplus.
Proponents of the referendum said they were frustrated by the slow pace of budget autonomy efforts on Capitol Hill. Issa withdrew his previous budget autonomy bill in 2011 amid objections from city leaders.
That bill would have given the city full freedom to spend local tax dollars without congressional approval, but it also would have made permanent a ban on using local tax revenue to fund abortions. A similar ban has been in place for much of the past 20 years, with the exception of brief stretches when Democrats controlled the Senate, the House and the presidency. Issa said the abortion language was necessary for the bill to gain the support of his Republican colleagues, but he pledged to continue working with city leaders on a budget autonomy solution.
The new bill from Issa contains no language about abortion or any other specific issues, but it reserves the authority of Congress to block city spending on certain programs. It would appear to maintain the status quo, under which federal lawmakers can attempt to influence policy in the district by withholding funds.
The bill would also increase the maximum salary of the district’s independent chief financial officer, a position created by Congress in the 1990s when the insolvent city government was under congressional control. CFO Natwar Gandhi, who makes $200,000, has tendered his resignation, and a search committee is looking for candidates to replace him. The bill would allow the new CFO to be paid up to $230,700 — equal to Vice President Joseph Biden’s salary.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the district in Congress, said she supports the intent of Issa’s bill but added that she’s discussing possible tweaks to the final language. In the meantime, she said she would “continue to defend the referendum from congressional action to overturn it.”
Mayor Vincent Gray said he would also work with Issa on refining the bill.
“I greatly appreciate Chairman Issa’s efforts to accord the residents of the district more control over our financial affairs,” Gray said in a statement.
Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed, one of the groups that pushed for the referendum, said he welcomed Issa’s support for budget autonomy but did not think the bill was necessary with the referendum about to become law.
“If this bill passed cleanly, would this be better than nothing? Yes,” Smith said. “But would it be better than the referendum? No.”
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