by Daniel Solomon
Residents of Forest Hills are used to people knocking on our doors from Greenpeace and the Watchtower. The next canvasser to knock may be from DC Vote (DCvote.org).
The nonprofit voting rights and statehood advocacy organization has launched its first ever canvass, and it may well be the first non-electoral campaign to knock on doors in all 8 Wards in the District.
DC Vote is trying to build a stronger base of support before taking its message of disenfranchisement out to the people in the country who do have voting representation in Congress. When a canvasser from DC Vote knocks on your door, please open your door and contribute generously – or at least sign up to be a member.
Court moves DC closer to budget autonomy – maybe
In the last week of May, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit handed local residents what Mayor Muriel Bowser initially called “the biggest victory for District autonomy” since the end of the Control Board (see tinyurl.com/US-Ct-of-Appeals). It’s not as simple as that, unfortunately. Nothing involving the District’s relationship with Congress is ever simple.
As you may recall, 83% of District voters adopted a referendum in 2013 to provide DC with “Budget Autonomy.” That measure, later adopted unanimously by the DC Council, would decouple the local budget from the Congressional appropriations process. It would allow DC to adopt a budget, just as all other cities and states do, and if Congress did not disapprove it – as it can with any DC law – the budget would go into effect. Currently DC’s budget, even our spending of locally raised taxes, gets folded into the federal budget and must be adopted in the often chaotic Congressional appropriations process.
With budget autonomy, the DC budget could go into effect on July 1st, as is the case with most other cities and states. That would align the budget year with the school spending year, and school funding is a major part of the DC budget. Without budget autonomy, DC is stuck with the federal fiscal year, starting October 1 or later. That misalignment forces DC to borrow money and pay interest to spend between July and October.
Former Mayor Gray, his appointed attorney general and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt refused to apply Budget Autonomy, believing it violated the Constitutional provision that gives Congress power to rule the District, and the Home Rule Charter, which bestows limited self-government on DC.
The DC Council disagreed and sued the Mayor. Judge Emmett Sullivan in federal district court ruled against the Council and Budget Autonomy. The Council appealed his ruling; Mayor Gray defended it. When Mayor Bowser was elected, she advised the appeals court that she agreed that Budget Autonomy is legal and therefore the case was moot. The Court of Appeals agreed, without any explanation or written opinion, sending the case back to DC Superior Court. It is not clear what happens next.
On the same day that the Court ruled, DC Council unanimously adopted the FY 2016 budget. There was a flurry of hope that it would be the first budget to move with only limited Congressional review. However, DeWitt, who is still serving as DC’s CFO, and newly-elected Attorney General Karl Racine believe budget autonomy is illegal and intend to continue to take that position in court or within the District government.
As with all things DC, stay tuned. The continuing battle will undoubtedly continue to play out in the District and in the media. Congresswoman Eleanor Norton has committed to continuing to try to keep Congress from stopping the referendum from taking effect.
Advocates beat back Congressional assault on DC – for now
In recent months, Congress has shown it intends to use the District as a pawn in its political games. No fewer than four bills have been introduced, either to overturn existing DC law or to prevent bills passed by our elected representatives from becoming law. DC Vote, along with a coalition of activists and national advocacy groups, held back the torrent of attacks on DC’s local autonomy, but meddling members of Congress have made it clear that the biggest challenges to DC’s local laws are yet to come.
Here’s just a taste of how Congress is going after DC in just the first quarter of 2015: The GOP presidential sweepstakes fueled two direct attacks on self-government in DC.
Just a few days before announcing his presidential bid, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced two resolutions to “disapprove” two bills passed by the DC Council. The Home Rule Charter gives Congress 30 legislative days – weekdays when both Houses are in session – to overturn any law adopted by DC. One of the bills challenged by Cruz was designed to prevent an employer from taking actions against an employee based on the employee’s reproductive health choices. The other sought to protect LGBT students from discrimination in institutions of higher learning. Companion disapproval resolutions were introduced and one was passed in the House.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced a bill that would put Congress in charge of gun safety laws in the District and strip our locally-elected leaders of any power to regulate guns. Rubio’s bill would allow people possessing a concealed carry permit from any state to carry a handgun almost anywhere in the District. In a rare move not tied to a specific vote, the National Rifle Association raised Rubio’s NRA “grade” from a B+ to an A, just a week before he announced his intention to seek the presidency.
The good news is that these efforts to overturn local laws through the use of disapproval resolutions failed. One of the resolutions never even went before the committee of jurisdiction in the House. The second passed the House, but so late in the Congressional review period that the DC bill became law three days later.
This was the first time in 23 years that a disapproval resolution was debated on the floor of either chamber, and shows just how much the current Congress disrespects DC’s right to self-government.
Some DC residents have had enough and recently sent a signal of their own to Congress that we won’t stand by and watch our rights being trampled. During the debate over the disapproval resolution, three demonstrators opposing the disapproval resolution were arrested in the House Gallery for unfurling a DC flag and shouting their opposition.
But the fight is really just beginning. Several members of Congress have stated publicly that they plan to use the annual spending measure to go after DC through the use of legislative “riders.” Through riders, Congress can impose its political views upon the District by barring DC from spending our own local tax dollars to implement laws its members do not like. It is very likely these assaults on DC – which likely would be buried in a huge must-pass spending bill – will cover a broad range of important areas.
If budget autonomy survives any further legal challenges, Congress may lose this easy route to interfering with DC.
No matter what Congress does or tries to do to the District, DC Vote will be here, fighting to bring democratic equality to Washingtonians through national education and legislative advocacy. Become part of the effort at dcvote.org.
Daniel Solomon is a Forest Hills resident and a DC Vote board member.