House Republicans are working on legislation that would block the District of Columbia government from spending its local tax dollars without approval by Congress, a subcommittee chairman said Thursday.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the subcommittee on government operations, said lawmakers are seeking to clarify the requirement that the city submit its local budget to Congress, as it has during more than 40 years of self-rule.
City leaders planned to go ahead and spend local tax revenue this year without taking that step. Meadows warned at a hearing Thursday that if they went through with that plan, city officials could be subject to civil penalties and even criminal prosecution under a federal law that prevents agencies from spending money they don't have.
House Speaker Paul Ryan opposes the city's efforts to take control of its budget, with a spokeswoman calling it an "attempt to strip Congress of its Article 1 powers."
"The speaker has been pretty clear. We're looking at all legislative options in order to make sure that we address this in the fairest and most concise way," Meadows said after Thursday's hearing.
Even though the District government gets roughly three-quarters of its $13 billion budget from local funds, Congress treats it like a federal agency, which means it can't start spending the money until it gets the OK from Capitol Hill.
That requirement was spelled out in the 1973 bill that gave District residents the power to elect their own mayor and council. City leaders tried to change it through a novel legal strategy, putting a referendum on the ballot to amend the city charter. The referendum was approved overwhelmingly in 2013. It was challenged in court, but after a judge ruled in the city's favor earlier this year, Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser said the city would no longer submit its budget to Congress. A separate legal challenge is still spending.
The arcane issue of how and when the city can spend its money is a big deal to advocates of self-rule, who see Congressional review as an unnecessary intrusion into local affairs. The city government has been forced to close during federal shutdowns even though it had plenty of money to continue operating.
In the mid-1990s, Congress was forced to bail out the District after years of fiscal mismanagement under Mayor Marion Barry and his successor, Sharon Pratt. Congress established a control board that ran the day-to-day operations of the city and imposed strict financial controls, creating an independent chief financial officer to sign off on all city spending.
The city's budget has been balanced every year since 1999, and Congress hasn't intervened in the budget process since the control board disbanded in 2001. The city now enjoys regular surpluses.
"In many ways we have today the best financial situation of any large city in the nation," D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said at the hearing.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District in Congress, said she expects the House Oversight Committee to approve a bill invalidating the budget autonomy law next week. She said the Senate would be unlikely to pass the bill but that Republicans would likely try to insert the language in a bipartisan appropriations bill.