News & Politics

Congressional Agency Rejects DC Budget Autonomy Law

The General Accountability Office says a ballot referendum giving the District control over its own budget is "without legal force."

Photograph via Shutterstock.

A key congressional office has shot down a ballot referendum giving the District budget autonomy from Congress, saying the April 2013 vote is “without legal force or effect.” The decision from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is a serious blow for the statehood activists who sponsored the initiative, which passed with more than 80 percent of the vote.

The referendum aimed to cleave DC’s local budget from the federal appropriations process to allow the city to spend locally raised revenue without having to wait for Congress to pass a spending bill. Because Congress did not strike it down during its customary 30-day review period last year, the referendum became District law on January 1.

Under the referendum, Congress retained some authority over the budget by requiring DC to submit it for approval the same way it does ordinary legislation. In total 98 percent of DC’s roughly $10 billion budget comes from local tax revenue and federal grants available to every jurisdiction.

But in its 12-page opinion, the GAO says that District residents can’t simply vote away Congress’s authority over the city. “While the Home Rule Act grants the District government substantial powers of self-government, the District government must also comport with the all of the act’s limitations,” the agency writes. It goes on to say that because the city cannot alter or repeal an act of Congress—including approval of the local budget—the Budget Autonomy Act is powerless.

The GAO’s opinion was solicited last fall by Representative Ander Crenshaw, a Florida Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the District’s budget. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee also released a report last year in which they said the referendum is “as an expression of the opinion of the residents, only.” 

The GAO’s opinion is itself nonbinding, but it sends a message to Jeffrey DeWitt, the city’s new chief financial officer, as he prepares to manage his first budget.

City leaders who supported the referendum, though, are understandably upset with the GAO’s ruling.

“Contrary to GAO’s opinion, the Autonomy Act retains Congress’ role and authority in local budget matters, and the new procedure meets the requirements of the Anti-Deficiency Act,” DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says. “Given the ambiguity caused by GAO, Congress should take this opportunity to acknowledge explicitly the right of District residents to determine how their tax dollars should be spent.”

Although the GAO opinion is a setback, budget autonomy isn’t a dead issue in Congress. House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, proposed a bill last year with parameters similar to the ballot referendum. In a statement, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says she is working with Issa to “perfect final language.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.