By Dave Oberting
Economic Growth DC is a strong advocate for both budget autonomy and voting rights for the District, but we also believe in the rule of law. You cannot bypass the Constitution to get what you want, even if your motives are pure.
For the uninitiated, the District does not currently have the power to spend the tax money it raises locally without congressional approval and an appropriation. This is a fundamental unfairness that has to be addressed. It’s a lot like a kid who mows grass to make extra money then has to turn around and give that money to his parents — who then send it back down to him with strings attached. No teenager would be happy with that arrangement. We get treated like teenagers every budget cycle.
Article I Section 8 of the Constitution explicitly gives Congress unfettered control of the District of Columbia. Here is the relevant provision of Section 8:
“To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States…”
By design, the District of Columbia does not have the same rights and privileges as the 50 states. The only reason we have any kind of local self-governance at all is Congress grew tired of managing us.
We should work hard to convince Congress to give us budget autonomy, but putting it on the ballot when you knew a referendum carried no weight was short-sighted and cynical. It’s a lot like putting free ice cream on the menu. Who’s going to say no to free ice cream? Only 17% of voters said no to budget autonomy. The move is more likely to aggravate Republicans in Congress than anything else.
There are three paths forward: amend the Constitution, convince Congress to go along with budget autonomy, and through the courts.
We believe that a constitutional amendment is required for the District to obtain statehood/voting rights, but it should be possible to obtain autonomy via Congress. Our recent spate of elected officials going to jail for corruption does not help our credibility with a Republican House. Having a cleaner government with a functioning two-party system would be an important move toward gaining the credibility and respect that’s required to convince Congress to grant autonomy.
Another interesting option would be for the District to sue the federal government in federal court claiming that the constitutional rights of District residents have been curtailed by having no voting representation in Congress. That effort may not be successful either, but it will draw national attention to the idea that residents of the District are disenfranchised every day.
Dave Oberting is the Executive Director of Economic Growth DC. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter: @GrowthDC.