In the 1970s, “Free D.C.!” was a rallying cry for the movement that aggressively demanded statehood. Four decades of quasi-colonial rule later, the best the D.C. voting rights movement has been able to muster is, “Free D.C.’s Budget!” The new slogan is part of a push to encourage Congress to grant the city more control over the money it raises locally. Currently, D.C.’s budget has to be approved on Capitol Hill, leaving it subject to the whims of legislators who have periodically forced the District to comply with their red-state views on social policy.
Protesting over budget policy is less revolutionary than demanding a 51st star on the U.S. flag, but it’s a more likely winner. While some conservatives still see D.C. as a testing ground for controversial social legislation, many mainstream Republicans have decided there’s little reason that the city’s $5 billion in locally raised revenues has to be vetted by Congress. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was first to propose granting the city more budget autonomy last year, a call echoed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) this year.
But even Issa won’t cut the strings altogether: His proposal would have codified a restriction on the use of local money to fund abortions, earning a swift rejection from Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. As they struggle to get a clean budget autonomy bill on the Hill, local activists and the D.C. Council have a more novel—and controversial—idea: voting on it.
In December, the Council bucked Gray and Norton by unanimously authorizing a referendum on budget autonomy. Under the plan, residents would vote to amend the Home Rule Charter to give the city more flexibility on spending its own money. While advocates say that it would move the ball while making a powerful statement, critics worry that it would provoke litigation and irritate congressional allies.