Anti-abortion group warns DC to watch its spending after ruling

A major anti-abortion group on Friday issued a warning to District of Columbia officials in the wake of a new ruling that said a D.C. attempt to grant itself budget independence from Congress was void.

The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) warned that local officials could face criminal penalties if they choose to spend money in ways not directed by Congress.

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The District is forbidden under the recently enacted omnibus appropriations act from spending its own money on abortions. The anti-abortion rider has been in place for several years since Republicans took over the House.

Last April, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to grant the District the ability to budget and spend its own funds independently from Congress. On Thursday, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that D.C., under the U.S. Constitution and Home Rule Act, does not have the power to unilaterally give itself budget autonomy.

"The GAO decision strongly reinforces the emphatic legal warnings that District officials had already received from the attorney general of the District," said Douglas Johnson, the NRLC legislative director.

"The GAO warns that ongoing scheme by certain District officials to seize control of so-called local funds violates multiple provisions of federal law, including the Anti-Deficiency Act — which is a law with criminal penalties. Any District official who actually spends public funds without an appropriation by Congress risks civil and criminal liability — and there is no statute of limitations on violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act," he added.

On Thursday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a statement that GAO opinions, while respected, are not legally binding. She also noted that for fiscal 2015, the District is allowed under the omnibus to spend money to keep services running in the event of another federal government shutdown.