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Turbulent Battle Over D.C. Budget Autonomy

Turbulent Battle Over D.C. Budget Autonomy

In 2013, voters in the District of Columbia were asked on their ballots if they support granting the District autonomy over how it spends locally-raised funds. By an overwhelming majority, they chose to approve that ballot referendum and endorse bringing Washington, D.C., one step closer to full home rule.

But, as with so many fights over the legal status of D.C., the case was, and still remains, far from over.

The Constitution grants authority over the District of Columbia’s affairs to the U.S. Congress. This has meant that Congress has been able to intercede to exercise influence over D.C.’s budget process, blocking spending for certain projects or programs that do not align with its political agenda. The lack of local control over allocation of funds has been a particularly sore spot for D.C. residents and officials, and culminated in the ballot measure.

The budget autonomy law approved by voters in 2013 would give Congress 30 days to block D.C.’s budget proposal. If Congress were not to act in that period of time, the D.C. City Council would be able to move ahead with the budget.

Any hope of greater fiscal independence appeared to be dashed in 2014, however, when a U.S. District judge decided that only Congress had the authority to change D.C.’s budgeting process. D.C. lawmakers appealed that ruling, and the case ultimately ended up in the D.C. Superior Court. In March 2016, Judge Brian Holeman overturned the previous decision and ruled that D.C. voters do have the power to pursue autonomous control over spending of local dollars.

It is still unclear just what this victory will mean for residents of Washington, D.C. In late May, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of legislation that would nullify D.C.’s budget autonomy law, although similar legislation is unlikely to garner enough votes in the Senate and President Obama has indicated he would veto such action. Congress may also try to re-exert its control over D.C.’s budget process through spending bills passed later this year – the House Appropriations Subcommittee has already passed an appropriations bill that overturns budget autonomy through committee.

While it has not taken a specific position on budget autonomy, the Reform Movement has long expressed its support for granting greater local power to the District of Columbia. In a series of resolutions passed over the last 50 years, the Union for Reform Judaism has endorsed “a workable form of home rule,” as well as full voting representation for residents of D.C. in both chambers of Congress. Our support for these measures is derived from our ancestors’ long history of marginalization and disenfranchisement within the larger societies in which they lived, as well as by our tradition’s teaching that officials should be accountable to the entire community. As Rabbi Yitzhak said: “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a).

The status of the District of Columbia is a contentious issue, but also one that demands attention and moral action. For too long, D.C. residents have been denied certain fundamental liberties, including the cornerstone right of all Americans to vote for their leaders.

For more information about the RAC’s work to extend equal voting rights to all Americans, visit www.rac.org/vote.

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters

Published: 6/20/2016