Taxation without Representation: Budget Autonomy for D.C.
Residents of Washington, D.C. fulfill all of the responsibilities of citizenship but have long been denied many of the rights that come with it. But as the calendar turned to 2014, D.C. took a small but potentially important step in rectifying the issue, as the District’s Budget Autonomy Referendum went into effect.
Last April, D.C. residents—83% of them—overwhelmingly approved a budget referendum that would separate out the District’s local budget from the Congressional appropriations process. By amending the District’s Home Rule Charter, the D.C. government no longer needs to wait for a Congressional appropriations bill to spend local tax dollars; instead, budget bills passed by the D.C. Council will be subject to a 30-day Congressional review, like other Council-passed bills, a process unique to D.C. Still, as of two days ago, Congressional gridlock can no longer prevent the D.C. government from providing local services, sparing the local government from federal shutdowns and other lapses in funding.
The result of the new policy is not full-fledged budget autonomy but it is a step in the right direction. During the most recent government shutdown, D.C. residents feared that garbage might pile up in the street and schools might close (Mayor Vince Gray ultimately resolved the issue by declaring all city employees ‘essential.’) D.C.’s vulnerability to the Congressional budget cycle was deeply unfair to District residents, especially since the vast majority of D.C. funds (around 70%) come from local taxes. It also has numerous adverse effects on D.C. governance.
More broadly, the subordinate situation of the District of Columbia is anomalous in a democracy. Lacking statehood and meaningful Congressional representation, D.C. residents are denied the right to have any voice in the creation of public policy—policy created in their own backyard. Instead, D.C. is uniquely subject to Congressional oversight on a staggering range of issues beyond their local budget, including gun violence prevention, access to abortion and the death penalty.
Reform Jews have advocated for increased rights for the District for over half a century. As Jews, long disenfranchised members of society, we are well aware of the importance of having elected representation. In the Book of Numbers, we learn of God’s instructions to Moses to gather 70 elders of Israel to serve as representatives of the people (Numbers 11:16–25) and in the Talmud. Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed until the community is first consulted.”
The Budget Autonomy Referendum is an important step forward for the District of Columbia and we hope that 2014 will bring other measures of increased local autonomy for our nation’s capital.