Last December, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to place a "budget autonomy" referendum on the April 23 special election ballot over the objections of Mayor Vincent Gray (who signed the bill anyway) and D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan. Both the mayor and the city's top lawyer reluctantly admitted it was not a good idea to bypass congressional control of local spending via popular referendum.
In a letter to the council, Gray expressed "significant doubt" regarding the "legality and wisdom" of unilaterally attempting to amend the city's 1973 Home Rule Charter. Nathan underscored the mayor's concerns, correctly noting that action by Congress, which created the charter, is "the only sound and long-term way of getting budget autonomy."
Under existing federal law, D.C.'s local finances are under congressional control, a fact that became painfully clear when the Financial Control Board was created in 1995. Like it or not, legally and constitutionally Congress retains the power to overturn any local laws or prohibit the issuance of local bonds. It can even dissolve the 13-member council itself any time it chooses.
In the unlikely event that the April referendum passes and nobody challenges it in court, Congress would still have 30 days to review the District's budget. That's hardly "autonomy."
And even if the current arrangement and the ever-present reality of congressional oversight are unnecessary and unhelpful, they have not harmed the District in any demonstrable way. In fact, if anything, it has prevented D.C. officials from making the same kinds of financial mistakes made by their counterparts elsewhere in the nation. As a result, when D.C. does finally get budget autonomy (or at least more flexibility) it will start on very firm footing.
Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House committee that has jurisdiction over the District, says he supports giving D.C. more flexibility to spend its own money as it chooses. But the California Republican is also quite clear that the decision is Congress' to make. In December, Issa referred to the upcoming referendum as "essentially a partial secession from the union" that will almost certainly be challenged in court.
And when that happens, the city's own attorney general will not be there to defend it, due to his previously stated objections. That will leave the council's own attorneys to face the inevitable smackdown on their own -- poetic justice for a legislative body with a tarnished reputation that continues to prove it should not be taken seriously.