House Committee Asserts Budget Power Over DC Government

A House committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would block the District of Columbia government from spending local tax dollars without approval by Congress. 

The party-line vote by the House Oversight Committee was not a surprise after Republican leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, characterized the city's so-called "budget autonomy" law as an illegal attempt to take power away from Congress. 

The District government has sent its budget to Congress for approval every year since the city was granted home rule in 1973. But this year, city leaders planned to skip that step. City voters approved a referendum granting freedom over the budget to the District, and a judge ruled in the city's favor after the law was challenged in court. 

The arcane issue of how and when the city can spend its money is a big deal to local officials and advocates of home rule, who say it's unfair for the city government to be treated like a federal agency. Roughly three-quarters of the city's $13 billion budget comes from local tax dollars rather than federal appropriations. In the past, the city government has been forced to close during federal shutdowns even though it had the money to continue operating. 

But Republicans said Congress clearly intended to have the final say over the city budget when it granted home rule.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District in Congress, noted that budget autonomy has garnered plenty of Republican support in the past. She said local control of the local budget is a commonsense principle that saves both time and money. 

"This is the most significant abuse of congressional authority since the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973," Norton said.

Norton said the Senate is unlikely to take up the bill. However, Republicans could ensure its passage by inserting identical language into an appropriations bill or another critical piece of legislation. 

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