Redoubling Efforts for D.C. Democracy

As you may know, a House subcommittee is expected to consider a bill repealing the District’s budget autonomy law tomorrow. When that panel held a hearing on the issue last week, it was clear that there were some serious misunderstandings about the law. It also was clear that the District should now redouble its efforts to obtain full democracy for D.C. residents–beginning with a sustained, nationwide campaign to build support for the Mayor’s current statehood initiative.

The Budget Autonomy Law is Legal

A number of statements were made at the hearing that were both clearly wrong and patently unfair to District residents and their elected representatives. It was suggested that even though the budget autonomy law was adopted by the Council, signed by the Mayor, overwhelmingly ratified by District voters, allowed to became effective by the Congress itself, and upheld by the Superior Court, it is still “null and void.” It was also suggested that District officials can and should disregard that law, and that if they do not, they may face federal criminal prosecution.
None of this is correct.

The question of whether the budget autonomy law is valid and binding on District officials has been decided by the court. Those who argue nevertheless that the law is “null and void” and should be ignored by District officials misunderstand how our system of government works.

It has been a basic principle of our constitutional system since 1803 that it is for the courts to decide the validity of laws. As Chief Justice Marshall held in Marbury v. Madison, “[it] is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.” Now that the court has upheld the budget autonomy law, that law is valid and binding on District officials. Not only is it proper for them to follow it, but they have a duty to do so. And that is true even though some think that the court should have ruled otherwise.

Congress Could Repeal the Budget Autonomy Law, but It Shouldn’t

It is true that Congress has the authority to repeal the budget autonomy law using its authority under the District Clause of the Constitution. But as Council Chairman Phil Mendelson testified, Congress should not do so. For well over a decade, the District has prudently and successfully managed its budget. By most measures it has done this better than nearly every other jurisdiction in the country. It is therefore no surprise that budget autonomy for the city enjoys strong bipartisan support and was endorsed by both President Bush and President Obama.

Moreover, permitting local elected officials to determine how best to use locally raised tax dollars to address local issues is a fundamental principle widely supported across the political spectrum. And a good case can be made that Congress has long been misusing its constitutional authority to violate that fundamental principle in the District of Columbia.

When the Framers adopted the Constitution’s District Clause, it was fresh in their minds that in 1783, the Continental Congress had to flee Philadelphia for New Jersey due to state-sanctioned unrest. The purpose of the Constitution’s District Clause was therefore to secure the federal government from local interference. It was not meant for Congress to govern the capital city’s local affairs. As James Madison recognized in Federalist No. 43 when speaking of the capital city, “a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed to them.”

Investing in a National Campaign for D.C. Democracy

It was wrong for some at the hearing to suggest that the budget autonomy law is null and void. It would also be wrong for Congress to move toward repealing that law. But the fact that these things are occurring–and may well continue to occur–demonstrates that the District must do more to assert the rights of its residents and redouble its efforts to bring full democracy to the city.

That includes not just defending the budget autonomy law, but also supporting Mayor Muriel Bowser’s bold, renewed push for statehood, which will culminate in a November referendum in which D.C. voters will decide whether to petition Congress to admit New Columbia as the 51st state of the union. But as evidenced by the hearing, it’s going to take a sustained, nationwide campaign to build support in the country and the Congress for D.C. statehood.

In fact, it is apparent that a successful statehood effort cannot end with the people’s vote in November and a petition to Congress. That will be only the first step. It needs to be followed by the city’s investment in a well-orchestrated, well-organized, and well-funded national campaign designed to bring visibility to the District’s lack of democracy.

Efforts by some in Congress to overturn the budget autonomy law should be a reminder to D.C. officials and D.C. residents that it’s going to take such a campaign to win the necessary support for statehood from Americans and their elected representatives in Congress. Plans for such a campaign should begin now.

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