When Mayor Vince Gray met the members of the D.C. Council for breakfast last week, there was more on the agenda than bacon and eggs. City Administrator Allen Lew was there with a PowerPoint presentation of bad news: Thanks to Republican refusals to fund the federal government without crippling the new health care law, the District’s own local services would shut down in a week.
Because the District’s budget goes through Congress, even money raised by local taxes and fees has to be appropriated by lawmakers from the rest of the country. In a federal shutdown, trash would be collected every other week here. Libraries and recreation centers would be closed; so would the Department of Motor Vehicles.
While essential services like police and public schools would keep running, any District service deemed “nonessential” would be closed until Congress acted. What about the 2012 referendum that would give D.C. control over its own budget? It did pass (though its legal status is murky), but it won’t go into effect until January.
D.C. had been here before. At breakfast, Lew remarked that he’d had to make preparations for several potential shutdowns in Gray’s three years in office. When then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s feud with Bill Clinton shuttered the federal government in 1995, the biggest debate wasn’t over whether to shut down the District, it was over whether parking enforcement would keep issuing tickets.
But amid the glum preparations to become collateral damage in the GOP’s war on Obamacare, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso had another idea, which he shared on Twitter. Instead of closing because Congress couldn’t come to an agreement, why not just keep the District open instead? At worst, D.C. would get the publicity of a fight over budget autonomy; at best, the libraries might not have to shut down.
Before the meeting, Grosso’s chief of staff showed LL the tweet, which is where LL thought the plan would stay. There were lots of reasons to close, not least of which was the fact that keeping the District running would theoretically open the Council and the mayor to forced removal from office and, incredibly, jail time. Attorney General Irv Nathan was against it. Independent Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, going on Nathan’s advice, was opposed as well.
So much for what LL knows. After the breakfast, Gray canceled a planned press conference with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton intended to protest the shutdown, and, instead, actually went out and fought the shutdown. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson promised to whip his members into backing a bill to keep the District open. Within a week, Grosso’s idea had become the Gray administration’s official policy.
While the federal government stopped nonessential operations at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the District’s government is still running. Businesses are still getting new permits, and trash won’t pile up on the curb (at least, no more than usual). As LL writes this, D.C.’s unprecedented continued operation hasn’t become the fight over budget autonomy and statehood that some hoped for—but it’s created a message that should be just as heartening for disenfranchised residents and legislators who live in fear of federal interference. Wallowing in its own dysfunction, Congress has stopped caring what D.C. does.
It wasn’t always expected to go this smoothly. That’s partly because the plan that’s keeping the District’s libraries (and everything else) open isn’t quite as confrontational as what Grosso first proposed. Grosso wanted the District’s government to flatly declare that it would stay open without appropriations, a move that would likely have run afoul of the federal Antideficiency Act. Instead, the official shutdown plan Gray submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget took advantage of a bureaucratic maneuver proposed by Councilmember David Catania: Only essential city employees can stay on the job? Fine. All 33,000 of them are essential.
Most people who have dealt with District employees could see through that ruse, but it worked well enough to avoid outright rejection from OMB. (Despite meeting with Gray on Monday, the agency still hasn’t officially approved or rejected the plan.)
On Friday, Nathan gave his legal approval to an even less confrontational choice first floated by advocacy group D.C. Appleseed. While the “nonessential” plan risked breaking the law if OMB rejected it, Appleseed’s plan proposed funding the entire District through the District’s $144 million “rainy day” fund, an option Gray eventually chose. The fund should last until Oct. 13. If the federal shutdown is still going then, and OMB has dinged Gray’s plan, this might not look like such a smart idea after all.
On Tuesday, the Council split the difference between the two plans and unanimously passed a resolution that declared city employees essential and asked for them to be paid from the rainy day fund. Gray made a rare appearance at a legislative meeting for a round of mutual backslapping. We may not always get along, but at least we’re not Congress.
Speaking of Congress, they’re giving a collective shrug to the District’s continued operation. California Rep. Darrell Issa, who chairs the committee that oversees D.C., told Roll Call last week that he wouldn’t interfere in the shutdown bypass. Remarkably, Issa was more congenial than Norton, who only said she wouldn’t second-guess the mayor while she worked (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for legislation to keep D.C. open.
The only question now is why it took so long. The rainy day fund wasn’t around in 1995, but it wasn’t mentioned as an option during the more recent shutdown threats, either. District mayors could always have declared every employee essential. Why now?
Kimberly Perry, executive director of D.C. Vote, attributes the shift to the momentum behind the successful budget autonomy push. Councilmember Jack Evans, who was on the Council during the 1995 shutdown, thinks it’s something a little less noble: Congress’ continued screw-ups. “The reputation of Congress is much worse today than it was back in 1995,” Evans says.
Whatever the reason, local politicos have rushed to take credit. Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the mayor, insists Gray was already thinking about staying open before Grosso proposed the idea. (Apparently no one told Lew before he gave his presentation on the city shutting down.) For his part, Evans cites two things: Grosso’s proposal, and his own request that garbage trucks keep rolling.
Grosso, meanwhile, is getting bolder. He introduced a bill Tuesday that would move the start of the District’s fiscal year to July, making D.C. less likely to be affected by a federal budget fight. More drastically, he’s trying to convince the rest of the Council to stop sending legislation to Congress for the 30 days of review mandated by the Home Rule Charter.
It’d be a drastic move, but with Congress in this state, who’s going to stop him?
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