House Republicans are looking into whether the District of Columbia government truly has the power to spend local tax dollars without approval by Congress.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, has pledged not to submit this year's local budget to Congress after a judge ruled in favor of the District's so-called "budget autonomy'' law, but House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders have cast doubt on whether the city has the authority to take power away from Congress. An oversight subcommittee will examine the issue at a hearing Thursday.
The arcane issue of how and when the city can spend its money is a big deal to advocates of home rule, who say the local government should not be treated like a federal agency. The city government has been forced to close during federal shutdowns, even though it had the money to stay open. Submitting the budget to Congress also forces the city to follow the federal fiscal year, which starts in October, complicating school funding.
Congress granted home rule to the District in 1973, allowing city residents to elect their own mayor and council but maintaining the final say over the city's budget and laws. The local government collects roughly $7 billion a year in tax revenue, and 75 percent of the city's $13 billion budget comes from local funds.
In the mid-1990s, Congress was forced to bail out the District after years of fiscal mismanagement under Mayor Marion Barry and his successor, Sharon Pratt. Congress established a control board that ran the day-to-day operations of the city and imposed strict financial controls, creating an independent chief financial officer to sign off on all city spending.
The city's budget has been balanced every year since 1999, and Congress hasn't intervened in the budget process since the control board disbanded in 2001. The city now enjoys regular surpluses and local leaders have characterized review of the budget as an unnecessary burden.
City voters approved a referendum in 2013 that grants the city full authority over its local budget. The referendum was challenged in court and Bowser declared victory earlier this year after a judge ruled in favor of the city, but a separate legal challenge is still pending. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District in Congress, and other city leaders argue that Congress shouldn't step in now because it had the power to block the referendum but did nothing.
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Republican opposition to budget autonomy for the District is far from unanimous: The past two Republican chairmen of the House Oversight Committee, Darrell Issa and Tom Davis, supported it.