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Eleanor N.
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  • Introduction of the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2015

    by Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton

    Posted on 2015-01-27

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    NORTON of the district of columbia in the house of representatives Tuesday, January 27, 2015 Ms. NORTON. Mr. Speaker, District of Columbia residents raise billions of dollars annually for their local budget, and, like Americans everywhere, claim the right to control the funds they themselves raise to support their city as fundamental to their American citizenship. Therefore, today I introduce the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2015, the second bill I introduce this Congress, to allow the District's local-taxpayer-raised budget to take effect immediately when passed by the city, without being subject to congressional approval.



    Control over the dollars raised by local taxpayers is central to local control, the oldest American government principle. Beyond this core principle, permitting the city's local budget to become law without a redundant congressional approval would have multiple practical benefits for both the city and Congress. For the city, a timely budget means eliminating the uncertainty of the congressional approval process, which has a significant negative effect on the city's bond rating, adding unnecessary interest costs for local taxpayers; improving the District's ability to make accurate revenue forecasts; and reducing the countless operational problems that result when the city's budget cannot be implemented until Congress approves it (even when it is not delayed, which rarely occurs). Also of major importance, the bill would permit the District to use the typical state and local government fiscal year (July 1-June 30), which is used to provide ample time to prepare for the opening of schools in September, instead of the current federal fiscal year (October 1-September 30), used for the convenience of Members of Congress, not the needs of the city. Moreover, the D.C. local budget consumes valuable subcommittee, committee, and floor time in both houses of Congress, the most inefficient and redundant annual process in the Congress. Yet the D.C. budget is of interest only to those members who use it to promote their own issues, violating a principle of local self-government that they value for their own districts and states.

    Increasing recognition of the hardships and delays caused by the congressional approval process has led Congress to begin freeing the city from many congressional constraints. We made significant progress in the last Congress on a major element of budget autonomy. There is unprecedented bipartisan and bicameral support for preventing D.C. shutdowns, which have been constantly threatened as the Congress now almost always fails to pass appropriations bills. Under the fiscal year 2014 D.C. Appropriations bill, D.C. was, for the first time ever, exempt from shutdowns for an entire fiscal year--2015. The fiscal year 2015 D.C. Appropriations bill also exempts D.C. from shutdowns for all of fiscal year 2016. In addition, the president's budgets last Congress and the Senate's D.C. appropriations bills would have granted D.C. budget autonomy. This progress from both Congress and the Executive invites the inevitable next step--a permanent shutdown exemption bill.

    [[Page E119]] The importance of eliminating shutdown threats to the District was definitively shown recently. The three leading bond rating agencies favorably cited the fiscal year 2014 D.C. Appropriations bill provision exempting D.C. from a shutdown in fiscal year 2015. In upgrading their ratings on the District's outstanding general obligation bonds, Standard & Poor's Rating Services and Fitch Ratings both favorably cited the provision, and Moody's Investors Service favorably cited the provision while maintaining D.C.'s rating.

    Several years ago, we negotiated an agreement with a Republican-led appropriations committee that ensures that the city's local budget is approved in the first continuing resolution (CR) if the D.C. Appropriations bill has not been approved by the start of the fiscal year, another important step that responded to practical realities. This approach ended the annual nightmares of lengthy delays of approval of the local budget of a big city until a national appropriations bill was passed, often months after the start of the fiscal year. As a result, under CRs, the city has been able to spend its local funds at the next year's funding level, even though federal agencies must spend at the prior year's funding level. We are deeply appreciative that this process, which eliminated serious problems for the functioning of the D.C. government, has continued.

    We nearly secured budget autonomy for the District in the last days of the lame-duck session in the 111th Congress, when Democrats were in control. We got the House authorizers to include budget autonomy in the fiscal year 2011 D.C. Appropriations bill, which was passed by the subcommittee. Unfortunately, the Democratic Senate did not include budget autonomy in its appropriations bill, and Congress passed a CR instead of regular appropriations bills in the lame duck.

    Most important, we gained critical support for D.C. budget autonomy in the 112th and 113th Congresses. In an Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in May 2011, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) endorsed budget autonomy. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) during that year both indicated their support for budget autonomy. Last Congress, Majority Leader Cantor and Chairman Issa both continued in their support for budget autonomy. The President's fiscal year 2015 budget, for the second time, will have granted D.C. budget autonomy. The Senate's fiscal year 2015 D.C. Appropriations bill granted the District budget autonomy, which was the first ever appropriations bill to grant it. We also got budget autonomy introduced as a stand-alone bill in the Senate.

    We kept the budget autonomy referendum from being overturned in Congress. However, a federal district court struck it down and an appeal is pending before a federal appeals court.

    Even if the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2015 were enacted, Congress would still retain jurisdiction over the District of Columbia under article I, section 8, clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution until statehood is achieved. This authority allows Congress to make changes to the District's budget at any time, as we saw last week when the House voted to permanently ban the District from spending its local funds on abortion services for low-income women. Therefore, it is unnecessary to require the District to incur the costs and delays of transmitting its local budget for congressional approval. The time is overdue to permit the city to enact its local budget, the single most immediate step Congress could take to help the District better manage itself.

    Members of Congress were sent to Washington to do the business of the nation, not a local jurisdiction. Members have no reason to be interested in or to become knowledgeable about the local budget of a single city or jurisdiction far from their own. In the past, the House and Senate have more often than not passed the District's budget as is. Our budget autonomy bill takes the Congress in the direction it is already moving.

    ____________________

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