Battle Over D.C. Budget Referendum

An unusual power struggle Monday in the District, where 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 the District's attorney general slammed the idea, saying the vote violates federal law and invites anger from Congress.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress full authority over the District of Columbia, but since 1974 the city, under limited home rule, basically runs its own affairs and $10 billion budget. But Congress can make any changes anytime it wants.

A power struggle played out Monday in a little hearing room of the D.C. Board of Elections when the D.C. Council pushed a new plan to get more independence from Congress.

“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,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said.

The council asked the Elections Board to approve an April voter referendum that would instruct Congress to allow the city to spend its own money without specific congressional approval. It also would mean the city wouldn't shut down in case of a federal government shut down.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan threw cold water on that. He infuriated city leaders like Mendelson. Nathan ruled the council ballot measure violates the city's home rule charter. Nathan also said it would irritate members of Congress, who likely would simply throw out the vote results.

“I think they've gone off the track here and violated the charter,” Nathan said. “I don't think that we'll be in a position to defend it if it is put on the ballot and passed.”

“It’s a big deal because the District has to act lawfully, and the job of the attorney general is to make sure that we act in accordance with the law,” Nathan added.

“Well, I disagree with the attorney general and I'm shocked,” Mendelson said.

The Elections Board put off a decision until Tuesday, but this fight could be headed to the voters, the courts or the halls of Congress.

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