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Opinion

Conservatives should support D.C. budget freedom bill

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Photo - Now Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at a D.C. City Council meeting at the Wilson Building in  Washington, DC on Tuesday September 22, 2009. Andrew Harnik/Examiner
Now Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at a D.C. City Council meeting at the Wilson Building in Washington, DC on Tuesday September 22, 2009. Andrew Harnik/Examiner
Opinion,Op-Eds

The D.C. Council is considering legislation that brings budget autonomy for the District closer to reality than ever before. The recent Washington Examiner editorial ("Groundhog Day for D.C. budget autonomy," Nov. 26) calling this budget freedom bill detrimental to this laudable goal runs counter to the real-world facts about this fight.

The council bill would allow D.C. voters to amend the Home Rule Charter in a referendum next spring to establish greater budget autonomy for the District, untangling local tax dollars from congressional control. Under the bill, once the D.C. Council and the mayor approve the spending of the city's local revenues in its local budget, the city would no longer have to wait indefinitely for Congress to pass affirmative legislation approving the budget.

This is simply good common sense. Congress almost never changes the District's budget proposals. And D.C. has produced a balanced budget each of the last 11 years, building up cash reserves and dramatically improving its credit rating. So it's no surprise that budget autonomy has bipartisan support. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama agreed that the District should be able to enact its own budget.

President Bush isn't the only leading conservative to actively back D.C. budget autonomy, either. Prominent Republicans like House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Virginia Gov. Robert McDonell support it because the current arrangement is sharply at odds with the principle of local control. Federalism remains a major tenet of conservative political thought and a fundamental feature of the American political system. Local control over local dollars is widely recognized as an issue of simple justice, but it is a right denied the people of the District.

The idea that Congress might have problems with the council action to win budget autonomy runs counter to the broad support for local control. It also ignores the judgment of leading players on the Hill.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who maintains close ties to the GOP leadership, recently threw his support behind the Local Budget Autonomy Act as part of testimony before the D.C. Council. Most notably, Davis expressed little concern that the bill would upset Congress. Citing the broad bipartisan support for D.C. budget autonomy, Davis told the council that Congress is "unlikely" to try to "overturn this in any meaningful way."

The Examiner's recounting of the D.C. budget autonomy fight on the Hill does at least illustrate the real obstacle to D.C. budget autonomy. Some in Congress are clearly committed to disregarding party leaders and using any D.C. bill to advance a narrow political agenda. Their efforts to impose draconian "conditions" upon the District in return for supporting a budget autonomy bill are unjust. They politicize an effort to end what has clearly become an anachronism. In doing so, they keep the hand of the Congress firmly attached to D.C. taxpayers' wallets.

D.C. budget autonomy is an idea whose time has come. The legislation now being pursued by the D.C. Council is a "second track" to it, and a measure clearly necessary to counter those who oppose any advancement in D.C. self-governance. The council's bill, rather than halting the march to budget freedom, will accelerate a bipartisan movement to grant the District the fundamental right to local budget control enjoyed by every other state, county and city in America.

Jon S. Bouker is chairman of the Board of Directors for the group DC Vote.

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