D.C.'s Local Government Would be Crippled by Fed Shutdown

Trash collection would stop and libraries would close in the nation's capital.
by | April 6, 2011
 

Earlier this week, Governing wrote that a potential shutdown of the federal government would have minimal effects on state and local governments.

But there’s one big exception: the local government of the District of Columbia, which would also shut down if the federal government shuts down.

Today, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray held a press conference to explain the devastating effect that would have on his city, which would include an end to trash collection, the closure of the DMV and a skeletal transportation crew that would stop performing routine maintenance.

“It’s just incredibly frustrating and incredibly unfair for 600,000 people to be treated this way,” Gray said.

The reason for D.C.’s unique crisis is federal law that requires the city’s budget – including items funded with local money – to be approved by Congress. That happens when Congress passes its appropriation bills. So even though D.C. passed its current year budget long ago, it too would shut down if Congress fails to approve a short-term spending bill. Essentially, D.C. is treated like a federal agency when it comes to shutdowns, regardless of where its money comes from.

“We shouldn’t even have to have this conversation,” Gray said. “They’re not having it in Chicago. They’re not having it in New York City. They’re not having it in the State of Pennsylvania.” Gray used the press conference to also make his case for a repeal of the rule and the restoration of D.C.'s budget autonomy.

A D.C. government shutdown would mean several major interruptions for residents. All DMV locations would close. The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would stop issuing permits and licenses. Street sweeping would end, and trash service would be canceled for the week after the shutdown begins (though it would be restored later). “That’ll be a treat, won’t it?” Gray said rhetorically. The Department of Public Works, which is charged with parking enforcement, wouldn’t issue parking tickets.

The city’s Department of Transportation would operate on a “skeletal crew” that won't perform routine maintenance and repairs. All public libraries would be closed.

(Here's a full list of what is and isn’t exempt from the D.C. shutdown.)

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi also projected that the city government would lose $1,025,000 in revenue each week that the federal government is shut down, since the closure of museums and monuments would mean decreased tourism in the city.

About 60 percent of D.C.'s 35,000 local government employees are exempt from the shutdown, since they are considered "essential." Those who aren’t essential won’t be allowed to keep doing their jobs, even on a volunteer basis, and they’ll be forbidden from using city-issued BlackBerry devices or accessing D.C. government data via computer.

Meanwhile, city employees who are sent packing may be entitled to unemployment benefits, creating both a financial and administrative burden on the city.

Services that would continue full-scale operations include police, fire and emergency medical services, the 911 system, and public schools. Some health and human services functions would continue, including Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, food stamps and Medicaid, as well as unemployment. Aspects of the mental health department, the child and family services agency, and the health department would continue.

The situation would also complicate the local budgeting process for the upcoming 2012 fiscal year, since the interruption could come right as the city readies to hold budget hearings next week. D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown said the council is still determining how a shutdown would affect those hearings. Some council staff members could participate, but others would likely have to go home. Meanwhile, department heads have been instructed that they need to decide who will testify at the hearings and designate them as "essential" so they can participate, even if the rest of the government is closed.

City Administrator Allen Lew said a special election for the D.C. city council scheduled for April 26 would continue as scheduled.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s congressional delegate (who lacks a full vote in the House of Representatives), had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to get the House to pass a provision that would allow the D.C. government to spend its local funds for the remainder of the fiscal year, but it failed in the House Rules Committee. She emphasized that her only goal was for the city to be able to spend its own local funding – not funding from federal sources.

She says the predicament facing the city is the latest in a string of moves by Republicans to use the D.C. local government as a political pawn. For example, H.R 1, the spending bill the Republican-controlled House passed in February, has riders that prevent the city government from spending money on needle exchange programs and abortions for poor women.

Norton says she does not expect a compromise to be reached between Democrats and Republicans that would avert a federal government shutdown – and thus a D.C. government shutdown. Based on conversations she had yesterday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and officials in the Obama administration, Norton said she now believes “there’s no way” a short-term resolution could be passed. Both the federal and D.C. shutdown will begin at 12 a.m. Saturday if an agreement isn't reached.

Norton says in the long-term, she hopes to create a permanent law that would allow the city to continue spending its own money if the federal government shuts down, but she doesn’t expect it to pass in a Republican-controlled House. Norton can introduce legislation and vote on it in committee, but she can’t vote on final approval of a bill.

During the press conference, Mark Plotkin – a respected political journalist with radio station WTOP – repeatedly asked Gray and Norton if Gray would consider violating federal law and deeming all federal employees as "essential" in act of civil disobedience.

“I would consider anything,” Gray said.

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