Judge rejects DC's try for budget autonomy

A federal judge on Monday ruled only Congress has the power to give budget autonomy to Washington, D.C., restricting the District from enforcing a local referendum passed last year.   

U.S. Judge Emmet Sullivan sympathized with those pushing the new law but said it "simply cannot withstand judicial scrutiny."

Specifically, the judge ruled it violates the Home Rule Act passed by Congress in 1973 that granted some local control to the District but not the ability to spend local tax dollars without appropriations from Congress. 

"As a native Washingtonian, the court is deeply moved by Plaintiff's argument that the people of the District are entitled to the right to spend their own, local funds," the judge wrote in his ruling. "Nevertheless, the court is powerless to provide a legal remedy."

The D.C. council in 2012 passed the Budget Autonomy Act, which was approved in a referendum the following year. Mayor Vincent Gray and his administration, however, have not implemented the law because they found it violated Congress's authority. The council took Gray to court in an attempt to force him to enforce it.   

The judge made clear the council's case was a stretch, since it has long sought to gain budget autonomy through reform in Congress and only now is arguing that it always possessed the authority. 

The Home Rule Act of 1973, the judge ruled, restricts the council from changing the federal government's role in the D.C. appropriations process. The judge said members of Congress debated and specifically rejected budget autonomy when approving the act. 

The judge also said the autonomy act violates another federal law that restricts D.C. employees from spending money that is not appropriated by Congress. 

The judge noted that some members of Congress and President Obama have argued for reform, but the proposal has been continuously stalled. 

"Both Congress and the President have expressed their support for budget autonomy for the District but have failed to act to achieve that goal. Congress has plenary authority of the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy," he wrote. 

While Sullivan maintained the court does not have the ability to change the law, he said there is good reason to do it. 

Congress "habitually" fails to pass a budget on time and has done so only three times in the last quarter century, he noted. The judge also pointed out the D.C. budget is usually outdated by the time Congress approves it because of the lengthy appropriation process.