May 2016

Home rule

Five Myths About DC’s Domestic Diet

No, DC does not live on federal funds, and no, it is not necessarily the job of Congress to manage our budget. Washingtonian writer Benjamin R. Freed dispels some misconceptions about district control. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The District of Columbia runs a $13 billion budget, but it technically can’t spend that money without congressional approval. District residents have voted for their own mayors and legislators for more than 40 years, but upcountry representatives are still allowed to influence how the city conducts its affairs, thanks to language in the Home Rule Act of 1973. which treats DC’s budget like that of a federal agency. In 2013, voters approved a ballot measure claiming self-determination on their local budget, which survived a court challenge and was approved by President Obama, paving the way for the city to pass its first budget without consideration. federal hand. But local oversight suffered two setbacks last week: A House committee passed a bill blocking the self-government budget measure, which Republicans say violates the Constitution. That same day, a federal judge struck down the city’s concealed firearms laws. There may be a constitutional case for congressional power over the district, but it’s often argued with inaccurate rhetoric and myths about the city. Let’s dissipate a few.

1. It is the job of Congress to manage the finances of the district.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to exercise legislative control over a parcel of land “not exceeding ten square miles” to serve as the seat of government. But on the role of Congress in city finances, the Home Rule Act simply says the mayor must not submit “a budget that is unbalanced.”

There was a time, in the bad old days of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the district had runaway budget deficits approaching $1 billion. After the 1994 election, when Republicans took control of Capitol Hill and DC voters returned Marion Barry as mayor after serving a prison term, Congress passed (and President Bill Clinton signed) a legislation establishing the DC Financial Accountability and Management Assistance Authority composed of five members. better known as the Board of Financial Control – which took over most of the day-to-day running of the district, similar to a New York State panel created in 1975 to run New York City after bankruptcy of the Big Apple. The DC Board of Directors fired thousands of city workers who had been hired under Barry and former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, shaved hundreds of millions of dollars from the city budget, and effectively halted everything. movement to a state.

Since 2001, however, when the council was disbanded, the district has tabled balanced budgets, improved its bond ratings, and frequently recorded surpluses. Technically, the Board of Control could be reinstated if the city’s finances get out of hand again, but in stronger years — fiscal 2014 ended with another $204 million on the books — that seems unlikely. In fact, it was the district’s surplus that allowed it to collect trash that had accumulated at National Park Service sites across the city in the fall of 2013, when the federal government shut down because Congress could not agree on how to manage the country’s money.

2. DC lives off federal funds.

In 2011, when a slew of district officials — including then-mayor Vincent C. Gray — were under federal investigation, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), then chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the district’s reliance on federal money gave it reason to launch its own investigations into municipal affairs. “Even after the Home Rule Act, the federal government still has significant responsibilities, and federal taxpayer dollars fund a large portion of the district’s budget,” Issa said.

Last week, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (RS.C.), who sits on the House subcommittee that oversees DC, even suggested that his constituents deserved a say in what happens here as much as in Palmetto State. “It’s the people’s city, and the people of South Carolina have almost as much invested here as the people who live here,” he said.

It’s true that DC relies on federal funds for much of its overall budget, for Medicaid and other programs the entire country depends on — but not as much as many states. In fiscal year 2013, the last year for which an overview of each state’s federal dependency is available, 33.3% of the district’s general revenue came from federal funds; according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, 20 states were more dependent on federal money.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 receives about $10 billion, or about 75 percent, of its $13.4 billion in spending from local sources such as income taxes, ownership and sales, as well as various fees and fines. Meanwhile, DC residents pay more federal income taxes than residents of 22 states. It’s true that the federal government pays for DC’s local court system, but no other jurisdiction in the country has its local crimes prosecuted by US attorneys.

3. The district may become part of Maryland.

In 1790, the Residence Act created the federal district described by the Constitution, a tract of land along the Potomac River, with Virginia contributing about 31 square miles and Maryland 68.3. In 1846, land south of the Potomac was returned to Virginia after locals became frustrated with Congress’s lack of attention (and partly because of fears that Congress would outlaw the slave trade in the district). Now, 175 years later, some Republican members of Congress — particularly Rep. Louis Gohmert (Texas) — have suggested that if DC residents want a real voice at the federal level, most city neighborhoods should just be part of it. of Maryland, leaving a small enclave under federal control.

But no one who lives here wants that, and not just because we should all learn the words to “Maryland, my Maryland.” Washington has more than two centuries of tradition as an independent jurisdiction; folding it into Maryland would end that and force the city to compete with the rest of the state for money and resources. Even if Congress somehow got Obama – an upstate supporter and future resident of a DC home that isn’t the White House – to approve the handover, the Constitution gives Annapolis legislators have the last word. The sudden addition of 672,228 residents would place the center of Maryland’s political balance even further inside the Capital Beltway and force the state to allocate its resources more finely. Lawmakers are unlikely to go that way.

And for what it’s worth, Marylanders don’t covet Washington: An April survey by Public Policy Polling found just 28% of voters in the state want DC back, while 44% don’t. not – a larger share than those who think Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback.

4. An independent DC could wield undue power over the federal government.

The argument against autonomy dates back to 1788, in James Madison’s “Federalist No. 43”. “The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government has its own evidence,” Madison wrote. “It is a power exercised by every legislature in the Union, I would say the world, by virtue of its general supremacy.”

In modern times, this fear has been voiced by people like Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, who told a 2014 Senate hearing that statehood “would make the federal government dependent on an independent state. . . . for everything from electricity to water, sewer, snow removal, police and fire protection. »

It sounds scary, but it’s also pretty unfounded. Already, the district’s police department exists alongside 32 federal police agencies, and its fire department is the first responder on record at the White House and Capitol. Additionally, the federal outposts in the states seem to be working well: Virginia has been an excellent steward of the Pentagon; Maryland is a decent host for the National Security Agency; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seem to be doing well in Georgia, not to mention the military bases spread throughout.

Madison’s argument may have been informed by the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, when a demonstration by unpaid Revolutionary War soldiers in Philadelphia forced the Continental Congress to evacuate to New Jersey. It’s certainly traumatic — but enough to deprive the residents of the nation’s capital of their right to self-determination? Even Madison did not go so far, writing that “they will have had their voice in the election of the government which shall exercise authority over them; as a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, they will of course be permitted.

5. DC can simply vote to become a state.

Bowser plans to ask a question about statehood in this year’s general election ballot. This month, she and other DC officials unveiled a draft state constitution for “New Columbia,” followed by a citywide constitutional convention in June. There’s no doubt the referendum will pass — a Washington Post poll last November showed 67% of district residents want a state — but the whole enterprise looks a bit like Model UN

Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to admit new states into the union, and as long as Republicans hold at least one house, there will be strong opposition. (Not just from the GOP: Democrats never made DC a state when they ran Congress, either.)

But Bowser and the DC Council will go ahead and try to enact their budget as if Tuesday’s House vote never happened — and maybe they should, even with Rep. Mark Meadows ( RN.C.), the author of the bill and head of the DC Oversight Committee, threatening legal action. If Meadows’ bill reversing budget autonomy becomes law, he would have to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate local officials under the Anti-Deficit Act, a law that prohibits the spending of public funds that don’t have not been affected by Congress. Since its adoption in 1884, no one has ever been charged or convicted for violating it.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the part of DC south of the Potomac River was returned to Virginia in 1841. In fact, the act of Congress returning it was passed in 1846, and Virginia officially accepted it in 1847.

Twitter: @brfreed

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