The Doormat for Congress—Washington, D.C.
Policy + Politics

The Doormat for Congress—Washington, D.C.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Things have simmered down since District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray was arrested earlier this month after leading a protest at the Capitol and lawn signs sprouted up declaring: “Congress: Don’t Tread on D.C.!”

But resentment among D.C. officials and local Democratic activists remains high since President Obama     bargained away the city’s right to use its own tax dollars to fund abortions for low-income women. It was part of a major budget agreement with the Republicans to keep the federal government operating through the remainder of fiscal 2011.

Obama’s last-minute concessions  to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to ban city-related abortion services and reauthorize a private school voucher program favored by Boehner but opposed by D.C. officials  and the president marked the latest episode in the long saga of the federal government dictating budget policy to the politically marginalized residents of the District.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s sole representative in Congress, lamented that Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership “were willing to let the House Republicans treat [D.C. residents] as second-class citizens.”

The Founding Fathers used the Constitution to render the District a powerless stepchild of Congress. Over the years, District politicians and residents have had to fight hard to win and keep local powers – including an elected mayor and city council, and a delegate with limited voting rights in the House. But the District’s budgetary and public policy authority is so regularly circumscribed by Congress and the White House that neither Obama nor Boehner saw the need to inform the mayor or Norton of the deal they struck.
Other examples of how Congress and the White House have used the District as a budgetary doormat over the years:

  • Congress must approve the city’s annual $9 billion budget and tax revenues as part of the federal appropriations process and often keeps the city waiting for months before signing off.
  • Members of Congress from neighboring Virginia and Maryland have routinely blocked efforts by the cash-strapped city to impose a commuter tax on workers who live outside the city.
  • More than a third of city property is federal land exempt from local taxes, yet the federal government reimburses the city for only a fraction of the services it provides and no longer makes an annual federal payment to the District in lieu of taxes.

While Obama’s D.C.-related concessions were heavier on political symbolism than on financial impact, they did serve to highlight long-time complaints that the District, despite being granted home rule in 1973 after nearly a century of tight control by Congress, still lacks many of the fiscal and budgetary options enjoyed by other major American cities.

In fact, if a federal government shutdown had not been averted just hours before the April 8 deadline, several key services in the District – such as trash collection – were at risk of being discontinued, just as they were during a portion of the last federal government shutdown more than 15 years ago. The annual D.C. budget remains subject to the approval of Congress, even though city officials point out that basic services are financed by about $5.5 billion in local tax revenues rather than federal funds.

‘We Had to Prepare for This’
“Can you imagine Baltimore being shut down…or Chicago or New York?” Natwar Gandhi, the District’s long-time chief financial officer, said during an interview with The Fiscal Times. “Those cities would say, ‘Get lost.’ But we had to prepare for this. We are treated as another federal agency.”

The D.C. budget, now about $9 billion annually, is almost entirely funded by either local revenues or the same type of federal matching aid programs or block grants available to other state and local governments.
An annual $660 million federal payment in lieu of taxes, intended to make up for the fact that nearly 38 percent of the land in the District  . is federally owned and therefore tax exempt, was repealed.  1997. In exchange, the federal government took over the unfunded pension liabilities of D.C. employees, who were considered federal employees at that time. “Had they not done that, we would certainly have gone bankrupt – because our pension liability was exploding, and we could not have managed it,” Gandhi said.

While several factors come into play, there is largely bipartisan consensus on the reason for the District’s legislative impotency. Republicans see little to lose by imposing mandates on an overwhelmingly Democratic city, while Democrats have been reluctant to expend political capital on a constituency whose support has never been in question in modern political times.

“They take us for granted,” said Mark Plotkin, a Washington radio political commentator and former D.C. Democratic Party operative, in an interview. “There are three [certain] things in life – death, taxes, and that D.C. will go Democratic. Ted Kennedy said in 1976 that the reason we don’t have anything is that we’re too liberal, we’re too Democratic, we’re too urban, and we’re too black.”