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In strange court case, DC lawyer says city can't take away Congress' control of local budget

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WASHINGTON — Even though he personally supports giving the District of Columbia more power over its local budget, the city's attorney general told a federal appeals court Friday that Congress has made clear that it wants to maintain control of the purse strings.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for the D.C. Council argued that Congress wouldn't be giving up any significant power if it allowed the District government to spend its own money without an OK from Capitol Hill.

Friday's arguments were the latest development in a strange court battle pitting the council against Mayor Vincent Gray over an issue they agree on. Both branches of government believe the city should have what's known as "budget autonomy," which would end the annual ritual of submitting the local budget to Congress for a cursory review.

But the council thinks the city already has that power, thanks to a referendum that passed last year. The mayor has declined to enforce the referendum, saying it violates federal law.

Members of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District were more aggressive in questioning lawyers for the council, not only on the merits of their argument but also on their standing to file a lawsuit. Judge Patricia Millett asked whether the council could sue the mayor anytime the mayor didn't execute a law to the council's satisfaction.

Attorney General Irvin Nathan agreed with the council that it has standing to sue the executive branch. But the appeals court could throw out the case if it finds that the council did not show it was harmed sufficiently by the mayor's decision.

Nathan said the law granting home-rule authority to the District made clear that Congress would have the final say over the budget, which it also controlled for a century prior to home rule. He also asked, if the city could take that power away through a referendum, why it had spent decades asking Congress for budget autonomy.

"From the beginning, Congress insisted on having full power over the purse, the budget," Nathan said, later adding: "The law is clear, the legislative history is clear and common sense is clear."

Brian Netter, an attorney for the council, said that in allowing the city to amend the Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress gave the city an opportunity to seize more control of local matters.

"It created a system in which it was delegating authority to the local government," Netter said. "Congress knew full well in 1973 how to be explicit."

Friday's arguments followed a lower-court ruling that favored the mayor. The appeals court gave no indication of when it would rule.

Millett also asked whether the issue would become moot when a new mayor and attorney general take office in January. Both leading mayoral candidates agree with the council's position on the issue. But Netter said the dispute would continue, in part because the district's independent chief financial officer believes the referendum is invalid.

"We think this issue will remain a live controversy," Netter said.


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