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Plan that would strip Congress of D.C. budget oversight advances

House Democrats are pushing this year to give the District full control over how it budgets and spends city revenue, severely limiting opportunities for Congress to intervene in local decisions such as support for same-sex marriage, needle-exchange programs and medical marijuana.

In what would be a significant milestone in the city's question for greater autonomy, U.S. Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) attached language Thursday evening onto the city's proposed fiscal year 2011 budget that would remove Congress from the process after this year.

Congress still would have the power to enact laws on the District and block new legislation approved by the council, and would have oversight of federal money earmarked for the city. But Serrano, a member of the Appropriations Committee and chair of the subcommittee that handles to District's budget, said the House and Senate no longer would have the power to dictate whether the city could spend local funds on controversial policies.

"We can't run away from the fact that the Constitution speaks of certain federal supervision of D.C., but what has happened over the years is the D.C. budget has been used as a playground for others social and political beliefs," Serrano said. "Everything looks pretty good to allow, going forward, the District of Columbia to handle its own local funds without having to check with Congress."

While some Republicans disliked Serrano's idea, the subcommittee approved giving the city budget autonomy when it marked up the city's 2011 budget late Thursday evening.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said Serrano's proposal would be "the biggest advance in home rule in 30 years" if it becomes law.

"It's home rule 2.0," Catania said. "It would be an incredible step forward for our local government."

Serrano's proposal still needs to be approved by by the full House, but he said he's privately received assurances from House Democrats leaders that they are ready to give more control to the District.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also voted on the city budget Thursday but did not include Serrano's proposal in the bill. But Serrano and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who has been pushing for years to get the District local budget autonomy, both say they are optimistic that the House's language can be approved in conference committee this fall. A spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the District's budget, declined comment until the senator can review Serrano's plan.

If successful, the proposal could be a big consolation prize for city leaders and residents disappointed that repeated attempts to grant the District voting rights have failed.

"I think this is going to work, and this is just below statehood and voting rights," Norton said.
With Republicans expected to make gains in the November election, Norton said she and Serrano believe they need to act this year while Democrats hold big majorities in both chambers.

Since the Home Rule Charter was approved by Congress in 1973, Congress has had to review and vote on the city's multi-billion dollar budget after it has been approved by the D.C. council and mayor. Traditionally, when the city budget has landed on Capitol Hill, members of Congress have attached "riders" on the budget restricting what local tax dollars could be spent on.

In the '80s and '90s, Congress used the budget to block funding for various city initiatives, including domestic partnerships, medical marijuana dispensaries and a needle-exchange program. Democrats retook control of the House and Senate in 2007, and last year the last of the restrictions were removed. If Republicans retake Congress, D.C. leaders fear that they will look to the budget to try to undo the city's new same-sex marriage law.

Even if the District obtains full budget autonomy, Norton notes Congress still could interfere in local-decision making by attaching amendments onto other bills that affect the District, such as efforts to link the city's gun control laws to the proposed voting rights bill this year.

But Norton notes that it's a far more strenuous and lengthy process.

"I can't say those things will never happen again, but the ready and convenient way that they have had just will not be there," Norton said.

Serrano's proposal also would allow the District to revise its budgeting process to allow for more accurate revenue projections. Currently, the council has to approve the budget by late May to give Congress time to act on it before the fiscal year starts Oct. 1. In years past, the lengthy process has interfered with efforts to start school in late August because some contracts had to be paid before Congress got around to approving the budget.

If "If he succeeds, we should erect a statue in his honor," Catania said of Serrano.

By Christopher Dean Hopkins  |  July 29, 2010; 6:23 PM ET
Categories:  Budget , City Finances , Congressional Oversight , Tim Craig  
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the city's "question" for greater autonomy?

Posted by: AytchTee | July 30, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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