In November 2010, and again in April 2013, D.C. voters went to the polls and by overwhelming percentages ratified changes to the city charter that advanced democracy for the District of Columbia.
In November 2010, voters changed the law to allow District residents to elect their own Attorney General starting in 2014. And in April 2013 voters changed the law to give the District autonomy over its own local budget starting in 2014–rather than continuing to have that budget caught up in congressional appropriation battles that threaten to shut down local services.
Both of these voter changes to the law are good for the District. And although both were dealt setbacks in recent weeks, both of the changes can be set right by District officials.
GAO Opinion on the Referendum is “Of No Legal Effect”
The setback for budget autonomy came from an opinion issued last week by Congress’s Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO said that the overwhelming vote of District residents in April 2013 establishing budget autonomy for the District has “no legal effect.” While we think the GAO was incorrect, its opinion was not at all surprising. GAO is a political arm of Congress, and it rarely, if ever, supports the rights of District residents.
Fortunately, as Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said in response to GAO, it is GAO’s opinion that is “of no legal effect.” That is because the vote of D.C. residents to establish budget autonomy for the city has already been reviewed and ratified by the Congress. That ratification became law last July. GAO may not agree with the law, but unless Congress changes it or a court overturns it, District officials are entitled and required to follow that law.
Council Bill Would Restore 2014 Attorney General Election
The setback on the Attorney General being elected came when the D.C. Council voted 7-6 last fall to override the overwhelming vote of D.C. residents and postponed the election until at least 2018. Unlike the action of the GAO, the Council vote was a surprise since Councilmembers are answerable to D.C. voters and ordinarily are strong advocates of greater D.C. democracy.
But again this is a setback that can be fixed by D.C. officials. There is a bill before the Council now that would restore the Attorney General election to November 2014. Under the bill–which will be the subject of a hearing on February 10–the election would be conducted like a special election, with candidates running as members of parties and getting ballot access by petition. This is the best way for District officials to get the election back on track consistent with the will of D.C. voters.
D.C. Officials Can Stand up for the People
Just last fall, the Mayor and the Council found a legal basis to keep the city open during the federal government shutdown, even though guidance from federal Office of Management and Budget lawyers called into question declaring all employees essential. And earlier, when GAO said federal agencies were immune from D.C. Water fees, and when the Congressional Research Service said Congress couldn’t pass voting rights legislation, District officials disagreed with these agencies and continued to fight for the rights of D.C. residents.
District leaders now have yet another opportunity to stand up for the people in the face of setbacks and make clear that the will of D.C. voters will be respected. It is time to implement voters’ call for budget autonomy and for an Attorney General election this year.