What if D.C. Just Didn't Shut Down?
||Wednesday, April 6, 2011
As the federal government careens towards a possible shutdown, the District is scrambling to adapt to what may end up being a week of no garbage collection, no public libraries, potentially no parking enforcement, and thousands of city employees forced to stay home. Why? Because being the federal colony that we are, each and every dollar spent by the District -- whether local or federal -- is appropriated by Congress. Ergo, a federal shutdown forces a local shutdown.
That's a problem. Residents of other states can surely complain about shuttered national parks and limited federal services, but at least they can run down to the DMV and get their license renewed or be assured that their trash will be picked up. We can't.
Or can we? As the possibility of the federal government closing has increased, residents, voting rights advocates and some city officials have pondered just working through the shutdown like it's not even happening. After all, the District's 2011 budget was passed last year and approved by Congress, so the money to fund local agencies and services is there. We're not the one jumping from continuing resolution to continuing resolution, so we should be able to work through this, right?
Yes and no. While the money is appropriated, the District's status as something akin to a federal agency means that any money spent during a shutdown of the federal government would be considered a violation of the Antideficiency Act, not to mention Article 1 of the Constitution. It's an odd situation to be in -- the act says that no branch of government can spend money that's not explicitly appropriated, and even though our local budget appropriates funds for local purposes, our being an appendage of the federal government means that we're simply lumped into its shutdown.
In theory, though, there's nothing stopping the District from just working through this. It's not like Congress is coming down to shut off the spigot and confiscate the credit cards. It's more that consequences can be severe -- an agency head, in this case, Mayor Vince Gray, could be fined, imprisoned or removed from his post for any transgression. Yikes.
While this may all seem like a fun academic exercise, Mayor Gray was actually pressed on it during his weekly press conference today. After calling the possible local shutdown "incredibly frustrating and incredibly unfair," Gray was reminded that he's often spoken of civil disobedience as a means to raise the District's objections to its second-class status. "I would consider anything at this stage," he admitted, adding that he would ask Attorney General Irv Nathan what might happen if the District just went on like nothing was happening. (Voting rights advocacy group DC Vote told DCist that they "applaud the opportunity to make a concrete example of the District's resolve in changing its second-class status.")
Late this afternoon, Councilmember Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) sent out a press release calling on Gray to buck the feds and keep the D.C. government open. "I call on Congress to exempt the District from their political tug-of-war and if not, I encourage Mayor Gray, regardless of Federal prohibitions or repercussions, to declare ALL D.C. Government workers essential," Brown said. (Essential workers have to show up.)
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who attended the press conference, didn't seem to think the idea would get off the ground. "Technically, until that gavel goes down," she said, referring to Congress agreeing on a new budget, "There's no way to get around it." Norton, who fought this year to have the District's budget removed from debates over the federal budget, also worried about the consequences, noting that Republicans could use any such protest against the District in the future.
Regardless of whether or not a shutdown occurs, this is again evidence of the fact that the District's lack of legislative and budgetary autonomy has very real consequences. Sure, not having a voting member of the House can seem insulting, but it's patently ridiculous that residents may not have their trash picked up for a week because members of Congress can't settle their differences like adults. (I personally think we should deliver our trash to the steps of the U.S. Capitol in symbolic protest.)
Even more seriously, if the shutdown extends beyond April 15, D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown stated that it would throw off deliberations and discussions over the 2012 budget. Imagine that -- not only would we be getting punished for other people not being able to deal with a budget that isn't ours, but we'd also be punished by losing time we have to actually deal with one that is.