D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray was outraged. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was livid, almost apoplectic. Even Illinois Democrat Danny Davis, ranking member on the House subcommittee with oversight of the District of Columbia, said it was wrong.
But it was D.C. residents such as David Hinnant, Ebony Edwards, Craig Harnett, and Tiara Jordan, all students at the University of the District of Columbia’s Community College, who were held hostage and among those who felt the adverse impact of a potential federal government shutdown most egregiously. While they should have been concerned with finals, projects and graduation, these students were left to worry if they could even finish the semester because the city would not have had the money to keep the school and many other municipal services open.
The unfair predicament these students found themselves in for numerous tense hours is illustrative of why President Obama and Congress must grant the District of Columbia full budget autonomy and control of its local funds posthaste.
Treated essentially as a ward of the federal government, although it raises its own revenue, the District’s local budget is constitutionally tied to the federal government and its cumbersome budget process over which the Congress and the president hold final approval. In fact, Congressman Davis has more authority over District funds than Mayor Gray or Congresswoman Norton because the latter has no vote in the nation’s legislative body.
Mayor Gray, accompanied by city leaders and activists who took to the streets around Capitol Hill Monday to protest the intrusive budget actions, was arrested while objecting to the Republican riders that will keep the city from spending its own funds on abortions for poor women and, possibly, on a critical clean needle access program to stem the high rate of HIV/AIDS in the District. The provisions also force a controversial school voucher program on the city.
“This indignity comes on top of the fact that no other state or jurisdiction had to endure the hardship of having to shut down a municipal government, thus spending valuable resources and personnel on a process that should never have been necessary,” Mr. Gray said in a prepared statement.
Further, “The United States Congress ought to do what is morally right and grant the residents of the District of Columbia – who pay more than $5 billion in taxes annually – the full right of citizenship and budget autonomy.”
Indeed, short of statehood, short of full voting rights, Congress and the president should devise an exception whereby the District’s budget would be exempted from the federal fiscal food fight each time we’re faced with this ideological impasse.
As for ideological agendas, Congress must also be barred from attaching last minute social riders on the District’s operating funds, not only because the practice is obstructing, it is also abusive, especially given the “undemocratic fact” that these congressional overseers are not in any respect accountable to the more than 600,000 disenfranchised District voters.
The Democrats’ hands are not clean either in this setback for home rule. District residents, who voted more than 90 percent for the historic president, should not soon forget that he served up this Democratic city’s budget by agreeing to the riders just as the Republican-led House used them to advance their social agenda.
“John, I’ll give you D.C.; I’m not happy about it,” President Obama said to GOP House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, during the testy budget negotiations in the Oval Office, according to NBC reports.
Shame on both their houses.
The next time the federal leaders play gotcha games with the budget, if it still includes local D.C. funds, they ought to be made to face District residents like those unnecessarily unnerved UDC students, and explain why their hard work may be for naught because of an outdated constitutional mandate that the president and the Congress could remedy with a stroke of a pen.