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Sherwood's Notebook: Two-Track Tweaking of Congress

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Sherwood's Notebook: Two-Track Tweaking of Congress

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DC in Power Struggle Over Spending City Dollars

There was an unusual power struggle in the District on Monday. The D.C. Council wants voters to approve a ballot measure in April to gain more control over how it spends billions of city dollars. But as Tom Sherwood reports, the District's own attorney general slammed the idea, saying the vote violates federal law and invites anger from Congress.
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The U.S. Constitution gives Congress “full legislative authority” over the District of Columbia.

As we’ve said a few times, if Congress were to push for a Ferris wheel on Pennsylvania Avenue, you’d see a Ferris wheel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

More seriously, if Congress wants to ban city funding for abortion clinics, drug needle distribution or statehood advocacy (as it has), then those bans become the law, too.

So our little city has to weigh our subservient position. Do you challenge Congress? Do you go hat in hand? Do you do a combination of the two?

Last week, Mayor Vincent Gray — playing the good cop — was heaping praise on Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) the congressman who chairs the committee that oversees the District. The mayor is glad that Issa has decided to handle District affairs himself rather than assigning them to a subcommittee under him.

“I’m glad that someone who has proven to be a trustworthy partner in respecting our autonomy will be leading congressional handling of affairs that affect our city,” Gray said in a statement.

Issa’s move could be important when and if he decides the city should be able to spend its own budget without heavy-handed congressional oversight.

But members of the D.C. Council aren’t waiting on good vibes from Issa or anything else. They want to force his hand.

Late last year the council passed legislation to hold a voter referendum this April. It would direct Congress to change our home rule charter to achieve that so-called “budget autonomy.”

It’s a unique strategy to get Congress’s attention even though Congress could simply ignore the election results when they go up to the Hill.

But the council’s tougher approach ran into an unexpected roadblock right here in the city.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan — a former House lawyer — said the council’s proposal not only would irritate Congress but also is illegal. Nathan said the city’s home rule charter bars referenda or initiatives that dictate changes in how the federal government handles the District.

“I am here today to do something that is very difficult and sad,” the attorney general said as he spoke Monday to the D.C. Board of Elections. Nathan was asking the board to reject the council’s referendum plan. Nathan said he supported the goals of the council, but couldn’t support the legal logic behind it.

“I’m shocked,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who endorsed the council’s effort. Mendelson himself appeared before the three-member elections board to fight for the referendum. The council’s own lawyer, V. David Zvenyach, also put up a spirited defense of the legislation before the election’s board.

Mendelson told NBC4 that the voter referendum wouldn’t irritate Congress, but rather give it incentive to act. “Although citizens don’t realize this, when the council votes on the budget, it’s merely advisory to Congress and Congress has the final say.”

Technically, that would still be true even if the Congress were to grant the city more independent authority, but Congress would be less likely to interfere in city issues. And the city wouldn’t have to close down during any federal government shutdown (another one is threatened this winter because of protracted national budget issues).

Nathan and the council also disagreed about whether the Board of Elections could even decide the validity of the council’s referendum.

The council argued the three-member elections board was simply “administrative,” that it could only make sure that the wording of the council’s referendum was legally clear and then schedule a vote on it.

Nathan contended the board had a duty to determine whether the council’s action was legal — and then to reject it.

Monday night came and went, with no clear understanding what the election board would do. Initially, board chair Deborah Nichols had indicated a decision would be made within hours of the Monday session. The board members — Nichols, Stephen Danzansky and Devarieste Curry — sifted through law and legislative intent.

Late Tuesday, the elections board sided with the D.C. Council. It cleared the referendum for the April 23 ballot. It also declined to add a sentence suggested by the attorney general. That sentence would have conveyed something like, “You’re voting on this but it’s probably illegal.”

Score one for the council.

■ A hand for Hanbury. We always enjoyed Bill Hanbury when he ran the city’s tourism offices and promoted the hell out of D.C. He was good-natured and ready with a good quote or statistic any time on visitors coming to the nation’s capital.

In 2009, Hanbury left the tourism job to take over the United Way of the National Capital Area. The charitable group was badly damaged with a reputation of poor management and disorganization.

But he went to work and turned things around. The United Way since has been in the news only for good things.

But now, Hanbury at 63 is stepping down from the United Way. It has been a good run, and the organization hopes to have a new director by midyear.

Related Topics D.C., congress, autonomy, Bill Hanbury
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