Congress looks at new legislation for District autonomy

It should not take D.C. nine months to change the word “handicapped” to “disabled,” in its legislation, D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray said, something he said happened because the District must seek congressional approval to change its laws.

Two bills before the House Government and Oversight Committee will grant the District of Columbia budget autonomy and the ability to legislate without Congressional approval, a step District officials and democratic lawmakers said is a crucial step toward better self-government and fairer treatment for its residents.

Under the current Home Rule Act passed in 1974, the District of Columbia must get its budget passed by Congress, and any law passed by the City Council is subject to a 30-day to 60-day waiting period before it is finalized.

Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and the Chairman of the Subcommittee on federal workforce, postal service and the District of Columbia, said that previous legislation Congress enacted in 1974 was a good step, but that it has created unintended budget delays and continues to disrupt the local government.

“Although the Home Rule Act attempted to strike a balance between Congress’ constitutionally derived authority and the need to delegate aspects of this power to local government, the fact of the matter is that certain provisions of the Act have created a costly and unpredictable public policy making process and an unaccommodating fiscal budget cycle for the City,” Lynch said.

The District of Columbia Legislative Autonomy Act of 2009, H.R. 960, would remove the waiting period for legislation the District of Columbia passes without being subject to Congressional approval.

The District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2009, H.R. 1045, would remove the requirement that the District gets its budget passed by Congress. But Congress would retain the right to pass legislation changing D.C. law or its budget.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting Democratic member of the House, described the current government structure as “paternalistic” and “anachronistic” and called for ending the waiting periods that Congress imposed on legislation the D.C. City Council passes.

“No city is faced with such a handicap,” Norton said. She added that the city cannot be run efficiently with the current congressional oversight model.

Mayor Adrian Fenty said that the passage of the two bills would represent “an important step forward” and that recent history demonstrates the District of Columbia is able to handle its own finances and internal affairs.

He said that the government has come a long way since unsound financial decisions in the District forced Congress to create an oversight board. Now, he said, the District has to come up with a budget nearly a year ahead of time because it must be passed in congressional legislation.

“These bills simply provide the District the same flexibility and autonomy afforded other jurisdictions across the country, to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of services – a fundamental responsibility of good government,” Fenty said.

He added that local governments could only be effective if they can respond to their constituents in a timely manner, and that Congress has not interceded in District legislation for years but the District must still wait the appropriate time before implementing the law.

Vincent Gray, the Chairman of the District of Columbia City Council, said that a large emergency fund, an A+ bond rating and strong internal controls are good reasons to grant the city budget autonomy. He said that this autonomy would be a step toward granting the residents “full citizenship.”

“I believe that the district has earned the right to budget autonomy,” Gray said.

Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said that he did not believe comparisons between the District of Columbia and other cities and states were fair, and that while he supports greater cooperation between the District and Congress, he does not support those two bills.

“The District of Columbia is not a state, and it’s not treated like one, and I take issue with that characterization,” Chaffetz said. He said the framers wanted balance in its approach to the District.

“I do believe it’s that constitutional check and balance that is in our best interests going forward,” Chaffetz said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-M.D., said that while the District of Columbia was originally created as a safe haven for Congress to prevent state interference, it is time to recognize that the citizens who live there need a government responsive to their needs.

“I believe its time we trusted the District of Columbia government to pass laws for its own citizens,” Cummings said. “The people of the District of Columbia both deserve and demand the full rights that they are due.”Congress looks at new legislation for District autonomy