Giving DC the Right to Decide How To Spend Its Money

One of the oddest aspects of federal oversight of the District of Columbia is the way Congress deals with DC’s budget.  Although our city’s programs and services are funded almost entirely from locally raised taxes or federal funds that all states and cities receive ‘ and the Mayor and DC Council spend months each year developing a spending plan’ it is Congress that gives the ultimate stamp of approval because DC’s budget is wrapped up in the federal appropriation.

But maybe not for much longer: A referendum introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson last week would change the city’s Home Rule Charter to let DC’s budget go into effect after a 30-day congressional review period. It would be a passive approval, so the budget would go into effect as adopted unless Congress took action to modify it.

This would be a tremendous step toward budget autonomy.

To be clear, the issue isn’t that Congress makes too many changes to the DC budget.  In fact, it typically makes no modifications to the spending plans adopted by the Mayor and DC Council each year, although Congress sometimes says where the city cannot spend funds, such as publicly-funded abortions.  The limited oversight reflects a respect for DC’s ability to manage its own affairs and is a sign that Congress does not really want to get into the details of city spending.

No, the real problems stemming from federal oversight of the DC budget are more about process. There are several issues. First, the Council is able to vote on the budget only once, while most bills in DC have two votes, offering a chance to review and improve upon initial votes. Also, the DC budget has to be approved in May, even though the fiscal year starts in October, meaning that a lot can change between the time the budget is adopted and implemented.  Both of these rules stem from the need to give Congress time to review the approved budget.

Beyond that, every time Congress and the President face challenges to approving the federal budget, there is always the risk that DC’s budget will get held up unnecessarily, too.

The referendum, which likely will go before voters in 2013, would turn things around a bit. Rather than requiring an active Congressional review and approval, Congress would have a passive approval, with 30 legislative days to review and modify the DC budget. But if they did not act in that time, the budget would be allowed to go into effect. The referendum maintains a healthy federal role in DC’s budget, while also being a better reflection of the actual congressional role in the city’s budget in recent years.

Budget autonomy would bring greater certainty to DC budget planning and other benefits as well.  It would allow, for example, DC to start its fiscal year in July, closer to the time the budget is adopted, and let  the budget for each school year to fall into one fiscal year rather than two.

DCFPI thanks Chairman Mendelson, DC Vote, and DC Appleseed for their efforts to promote DC budget autonomy.