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Washington D.C. Budget Autonomy Referendum Question (April 2013)

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A Washington D.C. Budget Autonomy Referendum question was decisively approved on the April 23, 2013 ballot in the District of Columbia. It was overwhelmingly approved.

Washington D.C. Elections Board members unanimously authorized a ballot measure that gives the people a chance on April 23 to vote for long sought-after budget autonomy. This proposal authorized a charter amendment that purported to remove the city's budget from the congressional appropriations process, allowing the D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the City Council to decide on all local spending and set the fiscal calendar.[1] According to reports, voters were likely to support the amendment. Reports also guessed that Congress would actively disapproval resolution to keep control of the City's budget.[2]


On January 30, 2014, the investigative branch of Congress called the Government Accountability Office announced that they have found that D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan was correct and that the referendum question does in fact exceed the powers of the city home rule charter, declaring it illegal and essentially ineffectual.[3]

Susan A. Poling, the general counsel of the Government Accountability Office wrote, “While the Home Rule Act grants the District Government substantial powers of self-government, the District Government must also comport with all of the act’s limitations." She also stated that the portions of the ballot referendum overwhelmingly approved in April of 2013 “that purport to change the federal government’s role in the District’s budget process are without legal force or effect.” Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt bowed to this decision and opted to not enforce the referendum, keeping the city's budget dependent on congressional approval.[3]


On April 17, 2014, the D.C. city council filed a lawsuit against Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, seeking to make them enforce the referendum that was approved by over 83 percent of the capital's voters. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), after announcing the lawsuit, said, "We have no choice." Mayor Gray said that he was "looking forward to there being a solution." He predicted that the lawsuit would be ineffective, agreeing with D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who has been the most outspoken critic of the referendum, consistently asserting that the referendum has no legally binding power and that only an act of Congress could give Washington D.C. budget autonomy. Mayor Gray said, “I am a huge proponent for budget autonomy. I want to do it in what I would call a lawful way. ... I think ultimately it is going to have to be Congress that changes it.”[4]

The lawsuit claimed that the Mayor defied and undermined the council's lawmaking power by refusing to enforce the will of the people in the referendum. The council's attorneys, who were working as volunteers, also argued that the Congress gave D.C. the option of financial control when it granted the city home rule in 1973. In mid-May, D.C. Superior Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled in favor of Mayor Gray and DeWitt and confirmed that the budget autonomy referendum had no legally binding power. An excerpt from Judge Sullivan's ruling read:[5]

As a native Washingtonian, the Court is deeply moved by Plaintiff’s argument that the people of the District are entitled to the right to spend their own, local funds. Nevertheless, the Court is powerless to provide a legal remedy and cannot implement budget autonomy for the District. . . . Congress has plenary authority over the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy.[6]

—Judge Emmet Sullivan[5]

Supporters of the referendum filed an appeal, and the final ruling is expected to come out of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.[4]

Leaders of D.C. Vote, the city's voting rights coalition that campaigned for the referendum, expressed disappointment in the mayor and the city's executive branch for caving to pressure from the city attorney and congress. Kimberly Perry, executive director of D.C. Vote, said, “We thought we’d be challenged by Congress. We never thought in a million years we’d be challenged by our own executive [branch].”[4]

Mayor Muriel Bowser

While arguments in the appeals case regarding the budget autonomy question were in full swing, the November mayoral election changed the key players, making for an interesting and unprecedented situation.[7]

Muriel Bowser, elected mayor in November of 2014, worked with the new and first elected Attorney General, Karl A. Racine, to ask the court to give a 30-day reprieve from court proceedings so that the new mayor could review the court case and establish her position, whether the same or different from that of Former Mayor Vincent Gray and then-Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan.[7]

Rob Marus, spokesman for the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, said, “It’s important to keep in mind that this is a highly unusual situation — with one of the major figures in a case before a federal appeals court changing after the court heard oral arguments in the case — and so there’s not really any clear playbook for predicting next steps."[7]

Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed, said, “The court actually anticipated that this might happen. To me, at least, it suggests that the court was open to the possibility of waiting to see what the new mayor had to say and, depending on what she said, finding the case was moot and dismissing it."[7]

Election results

Charter Amendment VIII
Approveda Yes 46,788 81.74%
These results are from Washington D.C. elections office.


Supporters of the measure were numerous and included D.C. Council's general counsel and activist groups such as the D.C. Voting Rights Coalition.[1] Speaking on behalf of this group, James Jones said, "A yes vote on [the question] will free D.C.'s local tax dollars from a dysfunctional Congress. Our local tax dollars should not be held hostage by people we did not elect to serve."[8] The D.C. Vote group also released a document supporting the referendum (dead link) that proposed the charter amendment as the key to granting D.C. residents "the democratic rights enjoyed by all other Americans to control their own local tax revenues" and that budget autonomy will allow the District government to more effectively govern and administer to the needs of the people.[9]


The argument proposed against this referendum by the D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan was simple: the amendment is illegal. Nathan, along with other critics of the amendment such as D.C.'s own Mayor, Vincent Gray, argued that the measure would likely lead to a drawn-out and pricey battle in court because the Anti-deficiency Act forbids the City of Washington D.C, as a federal entity, from spending funds without congressional approval.[1] Nathan supported an effort to achieve budget autonomy for the district residents, but he asserted that a law passed by Congress is the only legal way to do it. When pressed, he stood firm on his position, insisting that this amendment could result in political backlash from Congress who could see it as a violation of their oversight powers. Concerning the reaction on Capitol Hill, Nathan said, "To put it mildly, it is not likely to be pretty."[10]

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