What Budget Autonomy? D.C.'s Reproductive Health, Voting Rights Under Threat in FY15

On Tuesday, the White House released its budget proposal for the 2015 fiscal year. The President's proposal would grant limited forms of "budget autonomy" and local legislative control to the 646,000 citizens of Washington, D.C. -- a population greater than in either the states of Vermont or Wyoming -- whose city tax dollars and legal affairs are currently overseen by Congress.

Reactions from many D.C. activists and news outlets were nothing short of celebratory. Here, finally, was some substantive support from the White House for democracy in the District, at least where D.C.'s local laws and spending decisions are concerned.

But Obama's FY15 budget places some notable restrictions on how the federal government allocates funds to Washington, D.C. -- restrictions that do not apply for other states in the nation. Granted, there is precedent for singling out the District within the federal budgetary process. Historically, Congress has prohibited the federal government and often D.C.'s local government from funding specific social welfare programs in the District. There is on ongoing ban, imposed by Congress, that prevents D.C. from spending its locally-raised tax dollars on abortions for low-income women, for example. In previous years, Congress has prohibited the use of federal and local D.C. tax dollars for needle exchange HIV/AIDS-reduction initiatives, voting rights advocacy, and marijuana legalization.

The budget the White House has put forward for 2015 recycles a number of previously-imposed limits on how federal funds can be used in Washington, D.C. The President's budget proposes:
  • A ban on federal funds for D.C legislative advocacy to Congress or state legislative bodies.
  • A ban on federal funds for D.C.'s elected Representative and Senators. (So in addition to being denied a vote in Congress, they are also denied a salary.)
  • A ban on federal funds for D.C. voting rights advocacy.
  • A ban on federal funds for needle exchange programs.
  • The inclusion of a "conscience clause" with respect to contraception coverage in D.C. health insurance plans.
  • A ban on federal funds to legalize or decriminalize marijuana in D.C.
  • A ban on federal funds for abortion in the District (except in cases where the mother's life is in danger, or in cases of rape or incest).
Notably, the President doesn't propose bans on how D.C.'s local tax dollars can be spent, but his budget still includes language that requires D.C. to submit its proposed budget to Congress, to defer to Congressional oversight and overrule in certain legal and budgetary situations, and to honor "amendments and supplements" to its city budget prior to making expenditures.

But the White House budget's selective interpretation of D.C. budget autonomy is hardly unusual. During the 2013 government shutdown, Congress held D.C.'s local tax dollars hostage while it debated the federal budget -- forcing D.C. to draw down its emergency fund to pay for essential services like trash collection. The D.C. fiasco embarrassed Congress, which prefers as little media attention to D.C disenfranchisement as possible. In response, Congress passed D.C. "budget autonomy" for the rest of the fiscal year, meaning that Congress cannot disrupt how D.C. allocates its already accounted for, local tax revenues through November of 2014. However, the Congressional ban on D.C. using local tax dollars for abortion still stands. Congress seems willing to accept the premise of D.C. budget autonomy -- but only after it has the chance to approve D.C.'s annual budget first.

If history is any guide, Congress will tinker with the President's language about the District before it approves a budget for the fiscal year. The residents of D.C. are watching closely to see which decisions of our elected officials will be overturned in 2015, and which marginalized populations in our city (Low-income pregnant women? People affected by HIV/AIDS?) the federal government will find politically advantageous to target with austerity this time.