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Budget Autonomy

Initial Budget Process Created Problems for DC Government

For over 40 years DC’s budget process meant costly delays and humiliating Congressional meddling. But because of DC Appleseed’s advocacy for budget autonomy, the city now has a streamlined budget approach that minimizes Congressional interference.

The District’s1973 Home Rule Charter created a budget process that required DC to send a local spending plan to Congress which became part of the federal budget. This forced the budget process to be drawn out. Delays in passing a federal budget kept the District from spending locally raised tax dollars and paying numerous bills until Congress passed the federal budget. Not being a reliable creditor was costly for the District. Congressional House Committee on Appropriations debates about the DC budget made it easy for members of Congress to attach hundreds of humiliating riders which prevented the District from spending local funds on local needs.

DC Appleseed developed the rationale to establish budget autonomy for DC and in 2012 persuaded the DC Council to authorize the referendum that would amend the Home Rule Charter. In April of 2013, 83 percent of DC voters approved the amendment, giving the mayor and the DC Council the authority to approve all local spending and establish a fiscal calendar that meets the needs of the District. The amendment also freed the District from the threat of a shutdown caused by the failure of Congress to pass a federal budget.

Appleseed Advocates Budget Autonomy for DC

Mayoral Opposition Overcome by Litigation

Unfortunately, the Mayor at that time thought the amendment was illegal and refused to implement it. The Council sued the city’s executive branch and was supported by DC Appleseed’s amicus brief. In the spring of 2016, a DC Superior Court ruling declared the April 2013 referendum legal. According to Judge Brian Holeman, the Budget Autonomy referendum allows the District to “spend its money as long as Congress doesn’t say no.”

Muriel Bowser, who had been elected Mayor in 2014, welcomed the ruling. Since 2016, the DC government has managed its budget according to the autonomy established by the 2013 charter amendment.

DC Budget Process Continues to be Streamlined


Staff Contact:

 Neil Richardson

Pro Bono Partners:


Latham & Watkins LLP

Perkins Coie LLP

Troutman Sanders LLP

Mayer Brown LLP

Boies Schiller LLP

Poster for Budget Autonomy Referendum Campaign

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