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This past April, D.C. voters approved a referendum that would give the District autonomy over its budget starting in January 2014. But eight months later, the legality of the referendum is still in question. The debate centers on whether the city government has any power to change the relationship between Congress and D.C. that’s stipulated by federal law. We discuss the referendum’s status, reflect on gains for D.C. autonomy in 2013 and consider what’s ahead in the new year.
- Eleanor Holmes Norton Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-D.C.)
- Walter Smith Executive Director, D.C. Appleseed
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni, incoming editor-in-chief of "Roll Call," sitting in for Kojo. Later in the hour, inside Target's cyber security nightmare. Are you at risk? But first, in just two weeks, D.C. could be taking a significant step toward greater autonomy by assuming full control over its budget. Or, it might not be.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONISince voters passed a referendum giving D.C. budget autonomy last April, questions persist about its legality. Federal law stipulates that Congress has final say over D.C.'s budget, and only Congress can step in to change that. And everyone from lawmakers to D.C.'s own Attorney General has doubted whether D.C. residents can circumvent Congress's authority with a vote. Yet, in the eight months since the referendum passed, neither Congress nor the courts have used their power to overturn it.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIHere to discuss where it stands and how it fits into the ongoing push for D.C. home rule, I'm joined here in studio by Walter Smith, the Executive Director of D.C. Appleseed. Thanks for being here, Walter.
MR. WALTER SMITHGlad to be here.
BELLANTONIAnd we're honored to be joined on the phone by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. She is D.C.'s nonvoting delegate to Congress. Thanks for being here.
MS. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONI'm glad to be with you.
BELLANTONIExcellent. Congresswoman, we're gonna come back to you for a moment about what this all means for the long term. But first, Walter, would you mind explaining where the referendum now stands?
SMITHBe glad to do that. The referendum passed in the city last April overwhelmingly. And under the process set out by the Home Rule Act, it needed to be reviewed for 35 legislative days on the Hill, which happened. That 35 day period ran out late last July, so that means that the measure passed by the people is now the law.
BELLANTONIAnd Congresswoman, nothing's ever that simple in Washington, right? I mean, it's not that surprising Congress didn't do something, but what do we know about why nothing happened and whether this means D.C. actually has autonomy?
NORTONWell, first of all, the District felt help was more than warranted because the District has been trying to get budget autonomy using the traditional process for as long as I've been in Congress. And in other ways, even longer. But of course, as you said, nothing is quite that simple. It's taken effect, but it could not be implemented, probably, until the fiscal year 2015. Because there is already, now -- the Congress just went ahead and did what it usually does. It approved the D.C. budget.
NORTONThe D.C. is not spending its 2014 budget under that Congressional approval. Now, so the Congress simply ignored the referendum. That doesn't mean it can ignore it forever. Because in 2015, if nothing else happens, the District would have to make a decision that would pose some legal and political risks, but it certainly could make that decision. Meanwhile, the Congress has moved further than it has ever moved on budget autonomy itself. As we speak, I'm trying to get out to the bill, the appropriation bills which should be out on January 15th.
NORTONAnd the bill that contains the D.C. appropriation, that is, other than its local funds, contains both a budget autonomy, straight out budget autonomy section, that would give the District budget autonomy by law. And it contains, by the way, a no shutdown section. So we're trying to get that bill out now. That, of course, the House does not contain that, so I can't say for sure that it will come out by any means. But it should be noted that the President put a budget autonomy provision in his budget. So you have the executive for it .
NORTONIt's in his budget. He actually wrote the language. You have the Senate for it. It's in the Senate bill. That one House that I'm trying to get, keep from standing in the way, to get budget autonomy so there'd be no legal cloud over it. And no move controversy, so I think the District has proceeded on all fronts, and that's what you have to do.
BELLANTONIAnd, in fact, the Republican led Appropriation Committee, in your chamber of the House, did pass its spending bill and that accompanied -- the bill was accompanied by a report that said the panel considered our referendum an expression of the opinion of the residents only, and without any authority to change or alter the existing relationship between federal appropriations and the District. Walter Smith of D.C. Appleseed, what does that say to you about our referendum that we passed, I believe the numbers were 83 percent.
SMITHWell, it says to me that we knew all along that there wasn't gonna be 100 percent support, either for the referendum or for the efforts that Mrs. Norton is leading. But, the good news for District residents is that an expression of concern, in a committee report doesn't change the law. And meanwhile, as Mrs. Norton said, the council will be proceeding, beginning January 1 of next year with its fiscal '15 budget, pursuant to the law as it now stands. And that law is, as represented in the referendum, passed by the people of the District of Columbia.
BELLANTONISo, Congresswoman Norton, how do you think this one referendum is important to the cause of Home Rule? Is this something that is a step in the right direction for the District of Columbia?
NORTONWell, of course it is. And, by the way, tomorrow's the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the Home Rule Act. And that was after 100 years when the District had no home rule whatsoever. So, the referendum and indeed the move of Democrats in the Congress all are important and significant steps for budget autonomy. Indeed, we're working with our allies and the Senate to get us statehood. A referendum, or not referendum, excuse me, a statehood hearing in this coming year.
NORTONThere is a GAL report that has been commissioned by the appropriators, the House appropriators on the legality of the referendum. And one of the reasons I think the appropriators didn't know more than they did was they're waiting on that GAL report. But I don't think anybody should be discouraged. There's no straight line for anything the District has ever gotten. The notion, however, that if we somehow engaged in our self help, we would be rid of all riders, people need to be disabused of. The only reason we haven't gotten the budget autonomy bill out now is because of at least one rider that we haven't been able to get over and that's an abortion rider.
NORTONSo Congress can put a rider, can keep the District from doing what it wants to do anytime it wants to. And we've got to understand that the only way for us to get what we're entitled to is to continue to work and to work much harder on statehood for the District of Columbia.
BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation and tell us what you think about D.C. Home Rule, and whether you think the D.C. government should lobby Congress for more autonomy. Join our conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. By the way, I am Christina Bellantoni, the incoming Editor in Chief of Roll Call sitting in for Kojo. And Walter Smith, of D.C. Appleseed, how much disagreement was there within Washington D.C. initially about this referendum and what should happen. And what kind of decisions are local officials having to make as they try to put their budget in place?
SMITHWell, I think there was some disagreement, but I think, ultimately, most people came out where Mrs. Norton did. And that is, we need to proceed on all fronts. It's right for us to continue, as she will do, to try to lead efforts on the Hill to get legislation passed affirmatively there. But it's also right, at the same time, to pursue what we call this second track strategy, which is to proceed under the Home Rule Act to pass things that we can pass locally. And I think most District officials support that, and I think most District officials plan to support moving forward, beginning January 1, by implementing the budget autonomy referendum.
BELLANTONICongresswoman Holmes Norton, you are on the phone with us. And you mentioned a moment ago, this statehood measure that might get a hearing in committee, and you certainly, the District statehood effort saw its best days when Joe Lieberman was advocating for, when Democrats were in control of both chambers of the budget. Where do you see that push now, and how is your relationship with Congressman Darrell Issa, who is obviously Chairman of one of the most important committees in the House.
NORTONWell, Darrell Issa has, in every conceivable way, been helpful to the District of Columbia. He has gotten out of committee his own budget autonomy bill. It hasn't moved forward, again, only because of the threat of riders. He has been, I mean, they have term limited chairmanships, so I will very much hate to see him go, because not only on budget autonomy has he been helpful to the District of Columbia, he was helpful when I was trying to keep the District open over here. We finally did keep the District open, and spending its own funds through a bill passed by Congress throughout 2014.
NORTONEven though the federal government is operating until January 13th at 2013 level. He helped me get out bills, a bill for the Southwest War Fund, which is gonna be a whole new community in southwest. So, he has been instrumental in all we have been doing. And, in fact, as I say, and I should mention this, we also have support from the majority leader, Eric Kantor, who has come out for budget autonomy. And by the Governor of Virginia, Governor McDonnell, who came out for budget autonomy.
NORTONSo you see, the support for budget autonomy for the District is growing, and sometimes growing in places one would not expect.
BELLANTONIAnd, presumably, incoming Virginia Governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe supports this as well. I'm gonna stick with you, Congresswoman, because you caused a bit of a stir attending a private meeting with President Obama during the shutdown. You pressed the President to address this unique situation, and as you noted, he included autonomy in his own budget. What support do you think you have now from the President on D.C. issues?
NORTONWell, first, he could not have been more supportive on that. We had a situation here which was a real anomaly where they shut down the District, the federal government for 16 days. And the District is normally able to spend its own money. And this is another, in fact, one of the few things that -- improvements since the Home Rule Act, that the District can spend its own local funds, even if the federal government isn't through with its business.
NORTONBut that's assuming there's a Congressional resolution to keep everybody open, and there wasn't any Congressional resolution for anybody. So, The District shut down, even though the District's balanced budget, by the way, with a surplus, was already in the Congress. And the Republicans tried to get out each appropriation piece meal. And of course, I said get the District out that way too. But the Democrats, for really good reasons for all the other appropriations, but not for us, said we can't let it go piecemeal. We must make them face the fact that the budget has to be passed.
NORTONAnd you can't shut it down because you want to repeal Obamacare or some such. So the District got caught in this mess.
BELLANTONIAs it often does.
NORTONAnd although we always get the support of the Democrats, they did not support letting us our piecemeal.
BELLANTONISo Walter Smith of D.C. Appleseed, your organization was one of the greatest proponents of the referendum. And I wanted to touch base and find out what's next on your agenda, what do you see happening in 2014 when it comes to the District's rights?
SMITHWell, I think the first thing we're going to do is move to implement budget autonomy. The next thing we're concerned about is that something else that was achieved through a citizen's referendum, that is our ability to elect our own attorney general has gotten a little off track in the last few weeks. I expect that to get back on track sometime early in the new year.
SMITHAnd I think the other thing that's going to happen with regard to democracy in the city is, I think, the council and our local elected officials are going to look for other opportunities to press democracy forward in what I call this two-track strategy. Mrs. Norton believe the efforts up on the Hill, but I think there are opportunities for the mayor and the council to press forward in other ways. And one of them that I know people are looking at right now is the possibility of moving on the voting rights front for D.C. locally.
SMITHThat is, instead of simply waiting for Congress to pass something, we pass something locally that advances voting rights for the city and send it up to the Hill. And under the Home Rule Act, if both houses don't overturn it and the president signs it, it becomes law. This is a tool that's been in the Home Rule Act from the beginning. It's time to take greater advantage of it.
BELLANTONIAnd is the entire council on board with this?
SMITHI think they will be. I think most people on the council first want to put budget autonomy to bed. One battle at a time, which makes sense to us. But I think we're very close to being ready to implement the budget autonomy referendum and I think we need to move while the strategy seems to be working.
BELLANTONIHow does the D.C. mayoral election -- obviously a big primary in April and then the election next fall, potentially with David Catania as an independent in that race. How does that affect things? And do you see any major changes, you know, matter what happens politically?
SMITHI don't think anyone running for office is going to be anything other than a huge supporter of greater D.C. democracy. And I would like to think that the more these issues that you and I are talking about get injected into the election, the better off it's going to be for the people.
BELLANTONICongresswoman Holmes Norton, we have an email from Danny in Petworth, and of course you can send us emails to email@example.com. And he would like us to ask you whether you think the D.C. Council hurt its case for Home Rule in the broader sense when it rejected plans to make modest changes to the height limits for buildings. Some people in Washington felt it was a good opportunity for D.C. officials to present the case for making modest changes to their own city.
BELLANTONICongress seemed receptive to listening to them at the least. But the D.C. Council sided with (word?) and didn't move an inch. That's an email from Danny in Petworth. What do you have in response to that, Congresswoman?
NORTONOh, it's a good question. But the issue isn't settled yet. It looks like our government is divided on the Home Rule issue and that is always risky. So when we had the hearing, I asked the district council chairman and its members to sit down with the mayor so that they could reach some kind of consensus on what they want to do. There is concern that that is rather ironic when you consider we fight for Home Rule.
NORTONBut the concern I get is that some residents feel that people will raise a height that they don't want raised because we liked the residential quality of our city, its horizontal nature. But people are not, frankly, confident that its own government would stand with them. And so they lobbied the council and the council did not have a good answer for that. And so the council said, just leave things as they are.
NORTONThe mayor, of course, has to look more broadly, I suppose, at the city and he thought that some small changes could be made. And in my own view, and I wrote them concerning this and released the letter, that I did not think these were irreconcilable positions. And with respect to so critical a Home Rule matter, I thought it risky for each part of our government to go its own way.
NORTONAnd I certainly would like the federal government here to make a decision than win against either branch. And I therefore thought that it was the obligation of local officials to reach some kind of consensus. Do they want it or do they not want it? Or do they want it with some changes but not to leave out there the notion that one part the government wanted and another part does not.
BELLANTONICongresswoman, in our final minute here while I still have you on the line, you are going to be reintroducing a bill when we get back in January to overhaul the federal protective service. And tell us a little bit about why this is important, this is in response to the Navy Yard shooting and where you see it headed in the new year.
NORTONWell, I am really outraged at what has happened to the Federal Protective Service. It was a first rate service for a long time. And now, it has become a subject of countless GAO reports about what authorities it does not have and about lack of clarity of just what it can do or cannot do. For example, in each federal agency, there is a facilities committee that gets to decide.
NORTONThis is the committee of federal employees who had no security experience, who gets to decide on what security measures will take place in their federal agency. And the federal protective services just there to implement them. Well, that's outrageous. They're the cops. They're the ones with the expertise. Now, they of course were not the police. There were, I think, naval police on duty at the Navy Yard.
NORTONI have called for an independent study of what happened there. And we have not had that yet. We have the Capitol Police studying it and of course internal study. But that was so serious that I do believe we need an objective study because we now have many more agencies like the Naval Sea Systems Command where you have federal employees along with secure employees. And I don't think we know how those facilities ought to be policed.
BELLANTONIWell, we will be keeping an eye on that issue. Thank you very much, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s delegate to Congress. Thank you for joining us this holiday week. Really appreciate your time.
NORTONAlways a pleasure.
BELLANTONIAnd thank you so much to Walter Smith of D.C. Appleseed. Thank you very much for being here in studio with us.
BELLANTONII'm Christina Bellantoni sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be back with a discussion about Target's cybersecurity breach after a short break.
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