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Legal Review: Showdown in House over D.C.’s Attempt at Budget Autonomy

by Kerri Castellini — June 8, 2016 at 1:15 pm 0

Legal Review PriceBenowitz

Kerri Castellini is a trusts and estates attorney in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. She helps clients with estate planning, guardianship, and probate cases. Kerri is a member of the Women’s Bar Association and has written about evolving estate planning issues like digital assets (accounts, passwords, and web properties).

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives took a clear stand against the first prong of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s renewed push for D.C. statehood last week, striking down the District’s budget autonomy measure.

The Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act of 2012 has been a source of controversy between Congress and the District since its inception, although the vast majority of D.C. voters support it. Republicans have been questioning its legality both in and out of court since the referendum was approved by over 80% of D.C. voters in 2013.

In keeping with D.C.’s continued resistance to Congressional control of the local government, the Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act would allow District officials to spend local tax dollars and non-Federal funds without having to wait for Congress to adopt an appropriation act.

D.C. officials point out that having to wait for Congressional approval leads to delays in the provision of important public benefits and services, such as police patrols and public school nurses.

Despite a recent finding by a D.C. superior court judge that the Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act is Constitutional, a majority of the House still feels that the District is impermissibly overstepping its federal boundaries.

In addition, outspoken Republican opponents fear that removing the Congressional approval requirement will lead to the funding of abortions and other controversial programs within the District.

The Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act is premised on the powers granted by the District of Columbia Self-Governance and Government Reorganization Act, more commonly known as the Home Rule Act of 1973. The historic passage of the Home Rule Act was the first and most important step toward D.C. autonomy, relaxing Congressional control of the District and granting local government officials general powers to govern local affairs.

The Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act seeks to extend the powers granted to the D.C. legislature by the Home Rule Act in order to allow the District to exercise greate control of local funds by removing the existing Congressional approval requirement.

Last March, in a 39-page opinion, D.C. Superior Court Judge Brian F. Holeman determined that Congress had chosen to delegate “its authority and responsibility over the District’s affairs to the local government” with the Home Rule Act, and that the Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act was a valid exercise of that delegated authority. “This Court is unable to interfere with that lawful delegation of authority and exercise of that delegated authority by the Council, the Mayor, and the citizens of the District of Columbia,” Judge Holeman concluded.

In spite of the finding that the Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act was a valid exercise of the authority delegated to the District’s legislature, Republicans have been outspoken in their belief that D.C. officials are overstepping their Constitutional authority. House Speaker Paul Ryan condemned the Autonomy Amendment Act as unconstitutional, claiming the D.C. government was running “fast and loose with the Constitution.” Citing Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over . . . the Seat of the Government of the United States,” Ryan issued a statement successfully calling upon the House to “act to take back Congress’s powers under the Constitution.”

The Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act was struck down by a large margin last Wednesday, with two Democratic representatives, Jim Costa (Calif.) and Brad Ashford (Neb.), siding with their Republican counterparts to bring the vote to 240 to 179.

However, despite the overwhelming passage of the Republican-backed Clarifying Congressional Intent in Providing for D.C. Home Rule Act of 2016, or HR 5233, D.C. officials have not lost hope.

The Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act still has to go to the Senate, and the District has some powerful Democratic allies on their side, including President Obama, who has threatened to veto HR 5233.

In the weeks leading up to the House’s vote on the Budget Act, the White House published a statement of administrative policy making the President’s feelings on the issue of D.C. statehood very clear.

“The Administration is disappointed that the Congress has failed to provide elected leaders in the Nation’s capital the most basic authority to spend local tax collections without congressional approval, an authority held by local officials across the Nation… Such authority is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy, and the Congress denying the District this authority is an affront to the residents and elected leaders of the District.”

This message echoes the sentiments of many D.C. residents, who feel Congress is denying them their basic rights as U.S. citizens.

The published statement ended with a clear warning to the House that if the President were presented with HR 5233, his senior advisors would recommend he veto the measure. The fight for D.C. statehood is far from over.

Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.

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