If the federal government shuts down because of the shenanigans of John Boehner and his congressional minions, most American cities will muddle through. They control their own budgets and have the power to tax and spend at sufficient levels to manage even when federal officials cannot seem to do so.
But it's different for Washington.
The residents of the capital city of the United States are not merely denied elected representation in the United States Congress—creating a classic “taxation without representation” circumstance. They are denied the sort of budget autonomy that would allow the district’s elected officials to easily — without controversy or even comment — access funds and resources needed to maintain local services.
“The city is an innocent bystander in this federal fight, but a local D.C. shutdown will amount to a great deal more than collateral damage,” says Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the veteran civil rights activist who represents the District of Columbia as a non-voting delegate.
DC officials have emergency plans to maintain services—with Mayor Vincent Gray declaring all government operations essential and DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson developing legislation to pay the 32,000 municipal employees from the district’s contingency cash reserve fund. Gray says that “everything the District government does—protecting the health, safety and welfare of our residents and visitors—is essential.”
This is a strategy that relies on creative reading of the federal Antideficiency Act. It may work, at least in part because, as Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney notes, there is no history of prosecuting local officials under the act and it’s unlikely the Obama administration’s Department of Justice “would decide to start charging people now.”
“President Obama, along with practically all Democrats and many Republicans, supports extending to the District the right enjoyed by the 50 states to spend money without waiting for Congress’s approval,” observes McCartney. “It hasn’t happened because other Republicans are worried about giving up their power to use the District budget to push cherished causes, such as blocking abortion funding or helping people get guns.”