‘Great Car, Needs Engine’

The bill that Council Chair Phil Mendelson plans on introducing to allow for a referendum on Budget Autonomy by the citizens of the District is an interesting idea with an innovative approach. Quite frankly it is both bold and out of the box, yet I’m not convinced it’s the right course of action. I hope it turns out well in the end but eerily it reminds me of a used car lot on Benning Road NE from back when I was a child. I remember riding by it and seeing a sign on a car that said “Great Car, Needs Engine.” We laughed real hard at that sign, and I worry that our detractors might laugh real hard at wasted time and effort if this approach comes to fruition. This plan looks great and sounds great but it’s not the end we want to achieve in order to be full and equal citizens.

My first reservation with almost any and all non-Statehood initiatives is that the issue, be it budget autonomy or a vote in the House, distracts us from our fundamental goal. If Chairman Mendelson’s bill is passed we’ll invest time and resources promoting a ‘yes’ vote on the referendum, then we’ll spend 35 nervous days awaiting congressional action or inaction, and finally we’ll wait (years possibly) to see if one of the numerous well-funded groups that oppose our right to self-governance challenges the referendum in the courts as a violation of the Home Rule Act. During this period time and money will be spent by the District, DC Appleseed, DC Vote, and others that all could have been channeled toward a pro-Statehood push. Pro-Statehood people will be told that resources can’t be spared for pro-statehood work and that we need to fall in line and support “something that’s attainable.” Sadly, some people have a hard time understanding that statehood is the only end that is attainable, constitutional, and irrevocable.

My second reservation is what if a court overturns it? One outcome could be a positive, maybe if the courts reject budget autonomy through a referendum folks like Phil Mendelson, DC Vote, and DC Appleseed will finally come around to seeing that Statehood is the only answer and only way forward (but lots of time and money will have be wasted to get to this point). A court overturning a District passed referendum on budget autonomy could finally be the spark that ignites not just organizations but the people to become active and engaged statehood proponents. In a more negative light, however, if the court strikes down the referendum to amend the Home Rule Act it could really take the wind out of the sails of many good people and groups who are putting their eggs in this basket.

My final concern is the potential for a nasty counter offensive by our biggest detractors on the Hill. We have seen in this current Congress that many members just don’t like us and will impose their will, morals, and laws on us if given the chance. If the referendum passes our budget might be free but we are still subject to the laws/will of Congress and they could impose other laws on us that we would have to accept. Is budget autonomy worth have Congress imposing laws on us contrary to other principles we hold dear? What would Trent Franks or Rand Paul do if we usurp their “authority?” Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to pick fights but this doesn’t seem like a fight that would be worth it. Why do we keep fighting for scraps instead of the whole pie?

I think this is an innovative idea and a good approach, there’s no doubt I’d vote for budget autonomy in a referendum, but I worry that this is just another legislative distraction. The time, energy, and money spent on this campaign could probably be better spent on solely a New Columbian Statehood campaign. Statehood for New Columbia is our ultimate end yet we still have leaders unwilling to fight for it. This current approach looks good and sounds good but it will still leave us wanting if we achieve it. If we get budget autonomy through this new approach we’ll be happy that night but the next morning I have a feeling we’ll wake up and wonder why we bought that nice looking car without an engine.

Josh Burch


Follow on Twitter: @JBurchDC

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