Sherwood's Notebook: False Hope… Again

Native Washingtonian and federal Judge Emmet Sullivan didn’t let his heart affect his head. On Monday, he swiftly popped yet another bubble of home rule activists.

This one was the gambit by the D.C. Council to end-run the U.S. Congress on budget matters. Sullivan reaffirmed an inconvenient little truth about D.C. home rule.

Congress is in control, he ruled. Period.

The D.C. Council had passed and excited voters had approved a 2013 charter change that took a novel approach to the city’s $11 billion annual budget. It essentially declared after 40 years of home rule that Congress somehow had left a loophole in accounting for local funds.

That loophole, the council said, meant the city no longer was required to await a congressional vote each year on the federal budget before spending about $6 billion in local tax revenues.

Mayor Vincent Gray would like to believe the city has that budget autonomy. But Gray sided with D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan, who said the city was subject to Congress. The city’s new chief financial officer, Jeffrey DeWitt, agreed with Nathan. When DeWitt and Gray said they wouldn’t spend money without congressional approval, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and his members filed suit.

Enter Judge Sullivan.

“As a native Washingtonian,” the judge wrote Monday, “the court is deeply moved by [the council’s] argument that the people of the district are entitled to the right to spend their own, local funds.

Nevertheless, the court is powerless to provide a legal remedy. … Congress has plenary authority over the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy.”

In short, Congress is large and in charge. Plenary, in case you don’t know, means “complete in every way.”

A spokesperson for Mendelson confirmed that the chairman filed an appeal Monday morning with the U.S. Court of Appeals. Mendelson is seeking a review because the council is fast approaching budget deadlines to ship the 2015 budget to the Hill.

Attorney General Nathan had called the council’s suit “nonsense” last week and wasn’t really taking victory laps this week. Nathan agreed that the District should have full authority over its budget — it simply doesn’t.

Nathan probably agrees with Judge Sullivan, who said last week that the issue “tugs at the heartstrings. But the court can’t rule from the heart.”

■ The way forward? Few people are really expecting victory in the Court of Appeals. So what next? First, review the record. There have been two other big losses.

In the late 1990s, local leaders got the citizens excited when they filed a lawsuit saying it was unconstitutional for taxpaying District citizens to be denied a vote in Congress. Surely a court would agree.

Nope. Federal judges noted the Constitution specifically says that members of Congress would come from the several states and that Congress itself was to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such District as may … become the seat of the government of the United States.”

About 2005, local leaders lost another court suit seeking the power to impose a commuter tax on the suburban folks who hold 70 percent of the jobs in the District but pay no portion of their income to the District. Those out-of-town job holders funnel about $2 billion a year principally to Maryland and Virginia while the District gets nothing.

The District came close to getting half-a-loaf when Republican Tom Davis was in Congress representing Northern Virginia. Davis worked out a deal for the District to get a voting member of Congress instead of just a “delegate.”

He paired the city with Utah, a heavily Republican jurisdiction that would have temporarily gotten the extra congressional seat it had nearly received in the previous reapportionment. But the deal fell apart when local D.C. leaders wouldn’t back it due to a congressional push to repeal the District’s ban on handguns at the same time.

Now, advocates for flat-out statehood feel it’s time to once again pursue that goal, saying it’s the only way to go. Longtime D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says in the meantime she’ll redouble her effort to get Congress itself to approve local budget autonomy for the District. Mayor Gray and other city leaders say they’ll pitch in, too.

Unless the Appeals Court delivers a huge surprise, we’re pretty much at the end of suing for rights we should have.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

Contact Us