Norton Introduces Budget Autonomy to Keep the Ball Rolling for Equal Governing Rights for D.C.
February 3, 2009
Washington, D.C. - Even before the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 goes to the floor, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today introduced the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2009 to give the District control of its locally raised budget, the second most important bill in her "Free and Equal Series" for equal governing rights for D.C. residents. "Next to the right to representation, control of your own budget is at the core of democratic self-government," Norton said. "Members of Congress were sent here to do the business of the nation. They have no reason to be interested in or to become knowledgeable about the many complicated provisions of the local budget of a city. For this reason, the House and Senate pass the District's budget as is. Riders that are none of the business of Congress and have nothing to do with the budget have become the only addition to the D.C. budget. Two centuries first of congressional governance and today of congressional interference with this basic American right to self-government is two hundred years too many." The Congresswoman introduced the Budget Autonomy Act, even as her voting rights bill, raised in a hearing last week, moves through the House and as the Senate plans for an early mark-up.
In her introductory statement, Norton cited the benefits of the bill both for the District and for Congress. The bill would allow the District to have the same fiscal year as most states and localities, becoming effective before summer and, most important, before school opens; would eliminate the redundancy of the congressional process that has a negative effect on the city's bond rating; would increase the District's ability to make accurate revenue forecasts; and would reduce the many operational problems that arise because of the late start of the October 1 congressional budget year. The Congress would be relieved of the time and effort spent on the smallest appropriation affecting no other jurisdiction and the ideological debates and delays that any member can prompt by attaching riders, such as the bans on using local funds to lobby for voting rights and for needle exchange, which Norton was able to get removed last session.
The Congresswoman moved the city toward budget autonomy when she was in the minority and Congress approved her Mid-Year Budget Autonomy bill, offering the first freedom from the federal appropriations process by permitting the city to spend its local funds on an annual basis without congressional approval, instead of returning mid-year to become a part of the federal supplemental appropriation in order to spend funds collected since the annual appropriations bill. For the last several sessions, she has convinced Congress to abide by an agreement to allow the DC appropriations to be released by October 1, avoiding months of delay when the federal budget is habitually help up.
Norton got a hearing on this bill last session when Democrats assumed control, but she decided to wait to see if there would be a change at the White House before moving the bill to the floor. She will seek passage this session.
Norton lays out in detail the case for her budget autonomy bill in her statement of introduction. See below.
Statement of Eleanor Holmes Norton
February 3, 2009
Ms. Norton. Madam Speaker,
As we approach a vote on the D.C. House Voting Rights Act of 2009, it is not too early in the session to begin the next steps necessary to make the residents of the District of Columbia genuinely free and equal citizens. Other than to voting rights, the highest priority for District of Columbia residents in the 111th Congress is their right to control the funds they themselves raise to support their city. Budget control is essential to the right to self-government. Therefore, today, I am introducing the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2009 to give the District the right to enact its local budget without annual congressional oversight.
As a practical matter, permitting the city's budget to become law without coming to Congress would have multiple and immediate benefits for both the city and Congress. For the city, a timely budget means: eliminating the uncertainty of the congressional process that has a negative effect of the city's bond rating, which adds unnecessary interest costs for local taxpayers to pick up; significantly increasing the District's ability to make accurate revenue forecasts; and reducing the countless operational problems, large and small, that result because the city's budget cannot be implemented when enacted by the city. Of the many problems that would be eliminated, none is more important than aligning the school year with the typical state government July 1st fiscal year, instead of the congressional fiscal year, which starts in October, after the school year has begun.
Leaving the local enactment to the District would bring benefits to Congress as well. The D.C. budget often has had to come to the floor repeatedly before it passes because of controversial attachments, often of interest only to a few members who sue the D.C. appropriations to promote their pet ideological issues. Members then complain about the time and effort spent on the smallest appropriations that affect no other members. No budget autonomy bill can eliminate the possibility of riders because there are countless ways to attach riders, but our bill reduces the likelihood that unrelated riders will hold the city's local budget hostage and sometimes the appropriations process itself.
I am gratified that Congress itself has moved toward the position embodied in this bill. Congressional experience with the District's budget has matured, and neither party has made changes in recent years. At the same time, increasing recognition of the hardship and delays that the annual appropriations process causes has led Congress to begin freeing the city from the congressional appropriations network. In 2006, Congress approved the Mid-year Budget Autonomy bill, offering the first freedom from the federal appropriations process, the most important structural change for the city since passage of the Home Rule Act 36 years ago. As a result, the District can now spend its local funds all year without congressional approval instead of having to return mid-year to become a part of the federal supplemental appropriation in order to spend funds collected since the annual appropriations bill. Moreover, during the past few years, appropriators have responded to our concern about the hardships resulting from delays in enacting the D.C. appropriation. I appreciate our agreement that has allowed the local D.C. budget to be in the first continuing resolution, permitting the city, uniquely, to spend its local funds at the next year's level, even though the budgets for federal agencies are often delayed for months. This approach has ended the lengthy delay of the budget of a big city until an omnibus appropriations bill is filed, often months after October 1st.
There is no risk to the Congress passing the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act. By definition, Congress will retain jurisdiction over the District of Columbia under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution because the District is not a state. Since, therefore, Congress could in any case make changes in the District's budget and laws at will, it is unnecessary to require a lengthy repetition of the District's budget process here. The redundancy of the congressional appropriations process is its most striking feature, considering that few if any changes in the budget itself are made.
The original Senate version of the Home Rule Act provided for budget autonomy, and 210 years of redundant processing of a local budget and delays occasioned by the extra layer of oversight offer conclusive evidence that the time is overdue to permit the city to enact its local budget, the single most important step the Congress could take to help the District improve manage the city.
Members of Congress were sent here to do the business of the nation. They have no reason to be interested in or to become knowledgeable about the many complicated provisions of the local budget of a single city. In good times and in bad, the House and Senate pass the District's budget as is. Our bill takes the Congress in the direction it is moving already based on its own experience. Congressional interference into one of the vital rights to self-government should end this year with enactment of the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act.