Budget Autonomy for D.C.


How Budget Autonomy Works

Currently, the District’s Charter requires the city budget to be affirmatively enacted by Congress. While every year the Council passes a budget bill that is approved by the Mayor, this measure is only a request. Congress must enact the request into law before the District can begin spending its own revenue. This unfairly and needlessly burdens the District in a number of ways, including putting the city at risk of a shutdown if Congress cannot pass the federal budget.

Under the proposed Charter Amendment, however, the local budget would be enacted just as any other local D.C. law. The Mayor would submit a budget bill to the Council, which would then hold hearings and markups, and pass the bill after two readings. After receiving the Mayor’s approval, the bill would be sent to Congress for a 30-day review period. The budget would then become law automatically, unless during the review period both Houses pass a joint disapproval resolution that is subsequently signed by the President.

The proposed Charter Amendment would also allow the Council to set the fiscal year. Right now, the District’s fiscal year starts October 1, which tracks the federal government. However, most states and municipalities start their fiscal year July 1, which aligns with the academic year for their public schools.

Why Budget Autonomy is Good for D.C.

Unlike every state and most municipalities, the nation’s capital is prohibited from spending the roughly $6 billion it raises annually from local taxes and fees without an act of Congress. This is so despite the fact that Congress almost always enacts the city’s budget exactly as requested—and despite the fact that the city has balanced its budget each year for more than a decade.

Gaining autonomy over its local budget would benefit the District by:

  • Saving the city money. The current process adds about three months to the local budget process, which causes cash shortages. As a result, the District must borrow additional money—and incur millions in additional interest charges.
  • Improving fiscal planning. The delay between when the Council passes the budget and when Congress enacts it undermines forecasts for revenues and expenditures. Budget autonomy would make these estimates more accurate.
  • Preventing a government shutdown. Whenever the federal government is in danger of a shut down, so is the District government. Budget autonomy would allow the local D.C. budget to go into effect even if Congress and the White House cannot agree on the federal budget.

Why the Proposed Charter Amendment is the Right Approach
For many years, D.C. advocates have focused on gaining budget autonomy and other rights through Congress. However, these efforts have not yet produced the results that we have hoped for or that D.C. residents deserve. Despite bipartisan support for budget autonomy, Congress has been unable to pass a “clean” bill without riders that undermine the District’s Home Rule prerogatives.

We think efforts on Capitol Hill should continue, but we also think it’s important to explore all available strategies to advancing this important issue. That’s why DC Appleseed supports this new approach that looks at what the District can do now using the authority it already has under the Home Rule Act.

The benefit of the proposed Charter Amendment is that it gives D.C. residents a direct role in gaining greater democracy, and it works within the District’s authority under the Home Rule Act. Under the Home Rule Act, the Charter Amendment must be submitted to Congress after ratification. It will then automatically become law after 35 days—unless both Houses of Congress pass a disapproval resolution during that time that is subsequently signed by the President.

Some have raised concerns about the Proposed Charter Amendment. However, these should not discourage support for the referendum for several reasons:

  • No plan for greater D.C. democracy is easy. There were also doubts about the legal basis and
    political viability of the D.C. Voting Rights Act. However, that bill passed both Houses of Congress and was supported by the District because, like the referendum, it was the most viable option available at the time.
  • The referendum does not detract from congressional efforts. Former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia testified to the Council that Congress would not overturn the proposed Charter Amendment. And Rep. Jose Serrano of New York—ranking member of the subcommittee on D.C. appropriations—lauded the measure as “democracy at its very core.”
  • The District has the authority to enact the proposed Charter Amendment. The measure has been carefully reviewed by some of the top law firms in the city and by the Council’s own general counsel. All agree that it is within the District’s authority.

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