D.C. budget autonomy bill put forth in Senate

Proponents of District of Columbia budget autonomy added some powerful new allies to their cause Tuesday when several senators from both sides of the aisle introduced legislation supporting the measure.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee chairman Joseph Lieberman, (I-Conn.), ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Oversight of Government Management subcommittee chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2012.

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The proposed legislation would give the District greater control over its budget and allow the city to be managed more effectively, the senators argued.

The bill “would allow the mayor and city council to enact the locally-funded portion of D.C.'s budget at the beginning of a new fiscal year without explicit approval from Congress,” according to a statement Tuesday from Akaka’s office.

“Under existing law, the District cannot implement its budget until Congress affirmatively approves it,” the statement added. “Ongoing budget disputes in Congress have delayed implementation of the D.C. budget on multiple occasions, creating needless fiscal uncertainty for the city.”

The budget disputes also caused the looming specter of government shutdown in the District on several occasions.

According to Akaka, last year “3,000 D.C. staff hours were spent planning for a potential shutdown,” and a 26-day shutdown in 1995 cost the District an estimated $21 million.

In March, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the District was again at risk given the fiscal 2013 budget recently released by House Republicans.

She accused the GOP of breaking last summer’s debt-ceiling deal by setting a lower top-line discretionary spending level than the one set by the Budget Control Act.

It “could lead to a federal government, and therefore a District of Columbia government, shutdown on Oct. 1,” Norton warned.

“Six months away from the start of the fiscal year, the House Republican budget sets us on an ominous path,” she added. “We must take action now to prevent a replay of the circumstances that led to near-shutdowns of the District government last April and December.”

During the last 14 years, Congress has failed to pass the district’s budget by the beginning of the new fiscal year in all but two years, the senators added Tuesday.

"The people of the District of Columbia should not be held hostage to the gyrations of a divided Congress," wrote Lieberman in the statement. "Our bill would give the District greater control over its own funds and end the fiscal uncertainty that comes from what have become routine protracted Congressional budget battles. This bill is long overdue and would appropriately advance the concept of an independent D.C."

The lawmakers were quick to note that the bill still allows for Congressional oversight “since the federally-funded portion of the city's budget would still be approved through the current budget and appropriations processes.”

The proposed legislation would also allow D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and the Distict’s City Council to better run the city, they added.

“The elected leaders of the District of Columbia must be given the budget authority they need to provide the fundamental services that city residents rely upon,” wrote Collins. “You just can't run a city the way the federal government is run. A city requires more flexibility and predictability.”

Norton swiftly voiced her support for the proposed legislation, claiming she was “enormously grateful” for it.

“I am deeply appreciative to Senators Lieberman, Collins and Akaka, who have been longtime supporters of D.C. budget autonomy, for introducing the bill at this critical time,” she wrote in a statement Tuesday. “The three senators bring key and indispensable support to the increasingly bright D.C. budget autonomy picture.”

Norton also drew parallels between the Senate’s bill and legislation proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “indicating that leaders of both parties are seeing the issue similarly.”

Issa originally put forth a bill late last year that would have allowed the District to spend its own money as soon as the D.C. Council and mayor approved a budget.

Attached to the bill, however, was a prohibition on the District funding abortions except in cases of incest or rape. City leaders quickly rejected the proposal, but negotiations to reach an agreement remain ongoing.

Lieberman, Collins and Akaka are just the latest high-profile lawmakers to publicly support greater District budget autonomy.

In March, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told The Washington Post he is “certainly willing to work with the District toward its goal of budget autonomy.”

The second-ranking House Republican also “remains hopeful that there will be more flexibility by the District to find a path forward on this issue," his spokeswoman told the paper in an email.

Just weeks prior, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.) came out in support of the matter.

In early February, McDonnell sent a letter to both Cantor and Issa urging them to provide the District budget autonomy, as it’s “what the governors of every state enjoy.”

President Obama has also expressed his public support for greater District autonomy.

“The people of D.C. deserve to have control over their own local affairs,” a White House official told The Hill in January. “The president continues to be an unequivocal supporter of voting rights, home rule and budget autonomy for the District of Columbia.”