DC cannot declare budget freedom from Congress, GAO says

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said Thursday that a 2013 District of Columbia referendum declaring budget independence from Congress has no legal effect.

D.C. operates under limited home rule but its budget, including the ability to spend local tax dollars, has been subject to the annual appropriations process. Congress is free to add restrictions on spending, as it has repeatedly over abortion, and when a congressional standoff results in a shutdown, local D.C. services have been suspended in the past.

To address this, more than 80 percent of D.C. voters approved a referendum declaring budget autonomy last April.

The GAO said D.C. had no legal standing to do so, however. It issued the opinion in response to a request by House Appropriations Committee Republicans. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), the chairman of the subcommittee in charge of D.C. appropriations, requested the opinion. 

"We conclude that provisions of the Budget Autonomy Act that attempt to change the federal government's role in the District's budget process have no legal effect. The District of Columbia Home Rule Act, as well as the Antideficiency Act and the Budget and Accounting Act, serve and protect Congress's constitutional power 'to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever' over the District, as well as its constitutional power of the purse," the GAO wrote.

"We conclude, therefore, that without affirmative congressional action otherwise, the requirements of the Antideficiency Act continue to apply and District officers and employees may not obligate or expend funds except in accordance with appropriations enacted by Congress. The District Government also remains bound by the Budget and Accounting Act, which requires it to submit budget estimates to the President."

Appropriations panel spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said "the committee concurs with the GAO's findings."

D.C.'s nonvoting delegate to the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), said in a statement that the GAO finding is not legally binding. She noted a provision in the recent omnibus spending bill will allow D.C. to still use its own funds in case any dispute in Congress provokes a repeat of October's 16-day shutdown. She also said she will continue to press Congress to pass a law granting D.C. permanent budget autonomy. 

"Notwithstanding legal and political questions that have been raised, I will continue to work to head off any congressional efforts to block or overturn the referendum or to penalize the District for pursuing the referendum," she said.  "While GAO opinions are certainly well respected in Congress, they have no legal effect. What is most clear is the need, desire and momentum for congressional action for full budget autonomy."