House votes to overturn DC budget autonomy
© Anne Wernikoff

The House passed legislation on Wednesday to gut a D.C. ballot measure that gives the city more control over its finances.

Lawmakers voted 240-179, along party lines, to approve a bill that would prevent the District of Columbia from spending local tax dollars without congressional approval.

A D.C. judge upheld the 2013 voter referendum in a March ruling. Under that measure, the city’s budget would continue to be sent to Congress for a 30-day review. But if Congress doesn’t try to make changes to it, D.C. could automatically move ahead with spending as if the budget were approved.

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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city’s non-voting representative in Congress, decried the legislation as denying the preference of the 700,000 residents of D.C.

“It is profoundly undemocratic for any member of Congress in the 21st century to declare that he has authority over any jurisdiction except his own,” Norton said during House floor debate.

Republicans maintained that the District’s budget autonomy law violates the terms of congressional oversight over the city as outlined in the Home Rule Act.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over the city and author of the bill, said that allowing the referendum to go forward would set an illegal precedent. He warned during a hearing this month that D.C. government employees could face penalties if the city spends money without lawmakers’ approval.

“We’re not here today to make a power grab against the district, as some would suggest. We’re here to uphold the rule of law,” Meadows said. 

The ballot referendum has the support of President Obama, who issued a veto threat against the House legislation.

“The Administration strongly supports home rule for the District and the President has long called for authority allowing the District to spend its own local taxes and other non-Federal funds without congressional approval,” the White House said in a Statement of Administration Policy.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said that the judge’s opinion would stand unless both chambers of Congress clear legislation signed by the president that overturns the budget autonomy referendum. 

The legislation approved by the House on Wednesday likely does not have the votes to pass the Senate, because Democrats would be able to mount a filibuster in opposition.

Only two House Democrats voted with Republicans: centrist Reps. Brad Ashford (Neb.) and Jim Costa (Calif.).

If the standalone bill can't clear both chambers, Republicans could try to use a year-end government spending bill as leverage to overturn the voter referendum. 
 
Earlier Wednesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee approved a spending bill with a provision that would nullify the budget autonomy referendum. A similar policy rider could resurface later in the year if Republicans pursue it in an appropriations measure expected after the November elections. 

Updated at 6:37 p.m.