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The D.C. Council is moving to sue the city’s mayor and chief financial officer over a voter-approved measure designed to give the District the power to spend its own tax dollars without first seeking federal approval. It’s the first time this decade that a legal standoff has burst open between the branches of D.C.’s local government. WAMU 88.5 reporter Patrick Madden joins Kojo to explore what the disagreement is about and where it’s likely to go from here.
- Patrick Madden Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, contemporary religion on Capitol Hill, how one pastor is trying to grow a faith community that includes everyone from Hill staffers to the homeless. But, first, the Easter season gets confrontational for Washington's local lawmakers. The D.C. Council is suing the city's mayor, Vincent Gray, and it's chief financial officer in a dispute.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis dispute is a measure support -- in dispute is a measure supported by voters that was designed to give the city budget autonomy, the power to spend its locally raised tax dollars without having to ask Congress and the White House for approval. But Mayor Gray, City Attorney General Irvin Nathan and CFO Jeffrey DeWitt, say this measure has no legal effect because it violates the city's charter as it was set by Congress. Thus, the first legal standoff in a decade between these two branches of local government has been set in motion this week.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what it means and where it's likely to go from here is Patrick Madden who's a reporter for WAMU 88.5 who covers District politics. Patrick, thank you for joining us.
MR. PATRICK MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIVoters approved this measure last year. It was designed so that the city could gain budget autonomy without having to count on Congress passing its own measure to give the city that power. Why are the council and the city's executive branch in a legal dispute about it now?
MADDENRight. It sounds so simple. D.C. should have the ability to spend its own locally-raised revenue, you know, the money that comes from parking meters, all the money that D.C. raises. We're not talking about federal...
MADDENRight, comes from us. They should be able to spend those tax dollars. And that was the language in the amendment. And obviously it passed overwhelmingly. The problem is, it's complicated. D.C.'s relationship with Congress, in terms of the constitution, the home-rule charter, its -- it -- D.C.'s budgets have to go through this complicated process in which the budgets are sent to the president. They have to be affirmatively approved by Congress every year. And that's what this whole fight is over. On one hand, you have lawyers for the council who argue that this referendum, that D.C. actually can spend its locally-raised tax dollars.
MADDENAnd they have like a 20, 25-page lawsuit, that I just read, explaining why. And it's complicated. And then you have, on the other side, you have the GAO, you have D.C.'s Attorney General Irv Nathan, you have Mayor Gray, Jeffrey DeWitt, the new CEO, that says, no, actually this referendum has no legal effect. And it potentially could violate the Antideficiency Act and that D.C. wouldn't be able to legally spend its own tax dollars. And so you have these two competing legal viewpoints. And the only way to really come to a solution is by having the courts look at it and decide which side is right.
NNAMDIAnd a lot of this has to do now with timing, because under -- before this referendum was voted for by the voters of the District, the president had to approve of the D.C. budget. Since the referendum has been passed, what the council is arguing is that, once the budget passes the council, just like any other city legislation, it would take effect, unless Congress voted to reject it and the president agreed.
NNAMDIBut what the mayor now seems to be saying is, Look, I have to have this budget approved by a certain time in order to send it to the president, because it is now our legal opinion that this referendum is not valid. And so the council is suing to say the court will decide whether or not it's valid.
MADDENRight. And I believe it's 56 days in which the budget has to go to the president. But, again, it's really going to come down to these two differing opinions in terms of if this referendum has standing. Now I also should say, what...
NNAMDIWhy is it that the mayor and the attorney general and, of course, the chief financial officer -- what is the argument that they're making, also, in part I guess, based on an opinion from the General Accounting Office about why it has no legal meaning.
MADDENRight. They're basically saying, you can't change...
NNAMDIThe city charter?
MADDEN...the home-rule charter and also, to an extent, the constitution, which says that, you know, only Congress can spend, you know, can spend the money that's in the Treasury. And that D.C. has, because it's sort of considered a federal agency, its money is considered Congress' money. And so the argument on the other side, by the lawyers for the council, is that, well, actually, if you really look at what the home rule charter says when it was passed in 1973, it created this D.C. general fund that, they're going to argue, it actually took money out of the Treasury by creating its own pool of money that D.C. spends.
MADDENAnd so they're going to say, actually, the constitutional arguments are invalid, because this money actually isn't in the Treasury. And B, the home-rule charter actually gives the ability for the council to amend it. And, again, the GAO, the attorney general says that's not true. You cannot pass a law essentially -- you can pass laws changing laws in the District, but you cannot change laws that affect the United States -- affect how the president, Congress, other federal agencies sort of interact with D.C. in this budget process.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. What do you see as at stake in the legal dispute over D.C.'s rights to spend its own, locally raised tax dollars without approval from Congress or the White House. 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. One other thing needs explanation. Some time ago, looking at this process, we invented the phrase that these -- that the individuals who have to approve our budget were the interloper -- what was the phrase, Michael Martini's, the outsider, interloper, inter -- pond scum interloper dictators, is what he called them at the time.
NNAMDIAnd one of our listeners actually made a refrigerator magnet saying, don't let the pond scum interloper dictators get you down. Well, this is all about those people that we characterized as that and whether or not they should have the right to approve the District's budget. But, Patrick, what are the implications all of this has for this year's budgeting process?
NNAMDIIt was already going to be an awkward year for budgeting, considering that the mayor is a lame duck for the next nine months, because he lost the primary for reelection. The leading candidates looking to replace him are actually on the council. There was a lot of election-year politics people were expecting to come into play anyway. But I guess that doesn't really have anything to do with this particular dispute, does it?
MADDENWell, it just means that the -- so much is in flux, because potentially you could have the mayor submitting a budget to the president and to the Congress at a different time than the council passes its budget and then sends it. You could have these two competing budgets going to Capitol Hill. The other interesting thing I would say is that (1) this lawsuit is basically saying -- it's asking the courts to make the mayor and the CFO comply with the act. That's actually what they're actually asking for. They want a preliminary injunction saying you cannot disregard this law that was passed by the voters. And the...
NNAMDIWell, heck, what's the worst that could happen if the mayor and the CFO decide to go along with the act? WAMU 88.5's Martin Nostamuhl (sp?) spoke this week to D.C. Appleseed's Walter Smith, the architect of the aforementioned referendum that the voters voted on. He spoke with him earlier this week. And that was question that Martin put to Walter Smith, what's the worst that could happen. Here was his response.
MR. WALTER SMITHNone of those horrible things are going to happen, unless they make them happen. I mean, the truth is, the budget autonomy -- local budget autonomy is now the law. You know, it was passed by the council, it was passed by the people. It was not overturned by the Congress. It's the law. And it governs the attorney general, the mayor and the CFO.
MR. WALTER SMITHHorrible things will happen if they don't enforce that law and somehow shoot ourselves in the foot by saying, we're not going to spend money and we'll bankrupt the city. But there's no reason for them to threaten those things, because the law is on the side of budget autonomy. And unless a court overturns it or Congress overturns it, it binds them.
NNAMDIWalter said Congress had the chance to vote on this law, to proactively vote against it, and it turned down the chance to do so. So nothing's likely to happen if the mayor simply follows the law.
MADDENI mean, and that's what the lawyers are arguing. The other side, this being Attorney General Nathan, is saying that, you know, this could have problems. There could be, I mean, the term control board was thrown out there -- that they could come back because of this. The Antideficiency Act, which always gets -- also gets tossed around, and that, you know, brings fines and the threat of jail. I think, though, what this also comes down to is the mayor perhaps is worried about jeopardizing the gains that have been made so far. He has a good relationship with Congressman Issa, Darrell Issa, on The Hill, and that they have a good working relationship.
MADDENAnd they have been able to make some gains with Congress -- limited gains in terms of budget autonomy. And by taking this aggressive stance, that could really throw everything up in the air.
NNAMDIWhat's the history here when it comes to these kinds of legal disputes between the council and the executive branch? Some people may remember a standoff between the council and former Mayor Sharon Pratt, for example. There was also one between the council and Mayor Anthony Williams, when, at that point, Council Chairman Linda Cropp sued him over another separation of powers dispute involving the appointment of the District's inspector general.
NNAMDIThat case was rendered moot and dismissed. But there doesn't seem to be any real hostility in this lawsuit that's taking place here between the council and the mayor. Apparently both sides, especially the council, just wants to get this thing resolved.
MADDENYeah, that was a key point that Chairman Mendelson made at his press conference earlier this morning outside Superior Court, that this is not an acrimonious lawsuit, that everyone is on the same team here essentially. Everyone wants more budget autonomy for the District. They just disagree on the best way to do it. And so the council's position is that we need a court to step in and basically decide who's right in this case. But it's not a very aggressive or acrimonious lawsuit.
NNAMDIBut there are other important matters implied here, because there are some people who want to use this same referendum process as a vehicle for D.C. voting rights on Capitol Hill. For those of you who may not be aware of it, we have one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton. What sense do you get for how this legal dispute could affect the push for voting rights in the form of a referendum?
MADDENWell, I think, again, there are a couple of implications, I think, down the road. One, if this -- if the court rules that the referendum has no legal standing, that obviously creates a problem down the road for any future referendums amending the charter that have to do with something like voting rights. I also think that, again, you know, there's concern about, you know, ticking off Congress. They want to have this working relationship with, whether it's Darrell Issa or other members of Congress that they can work together to make the sort of incremental gains that they want in terms of either budget autonomy or voting rights.
MADDENAnd that's why I think, when you carefully read the statements that have been put out by Delegate Norton and Mayor Gray, initially, they weren't against this. They've sort of defended it. But they haven't done it really wholeheartedly, because I think there's concern over what this will do to the relationships on Capitol Hill.
NNAMDIOutside of this dispute over autonomy, what are the other political landmines ahead for the budgeting process in D.C.? Things get very political in an election year like this one.
MADDENYeah, I mean, as you mentioned before, Kojo, you have Mayor Gray, who's a lame duck for a long time. You have Muriel Bowser, who won the Democratic primary. You've got David Catania, who is running as an Independent in the general. You have all of these different forces that are going to be pushing and pulling on the budget process right now. And this just adds a -- just another sort of variable in the mix that it's going to be a very interesting and highly politicized budget season.
NNAMDIPatrick Madden, he's a reporter for WAMU 88.5, weighing in on the lawsuit filed by the D.C. Council against the mayor to decide exactly what we can do with our local tax dollars. And, of course, if you happen to be a federal lawmaker listening to this broadcast on the pond scum, interloper dictator -- we're just kidding, okay. Patrick, thank you so much for joining us.
MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, contemporary religion on Capitol Hill, how one pastor is trying to grow a faith community that includes everyone from hill staffers to the homeless. We'll be talking with Mark Batterson. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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