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.”
That tendency to play games with regard to the District of Columbia creates lingering concerns, however.
So Norton has been scrambling to get House and Senate leaders to agree to a deal—like the one she arranged out with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich during the federal government shutdown of late 1995 and early 1996—that would allow Washington’s city government to maintain operations if Congress cannot reach a broader agreement on a continuing resolution.
“The Republican CR containing Obamacare may have a point to make, but shutting down the D.C. government is pointlessly destructive to the nation’s capital,” says Norton. “No member has ever indicated he or she wanted D.C. to shut down, many members are unaware that our local budget even comes to Congress, and most members do not know that the city government would be caught up in a federal shutdown. With the multiple steps we are taking, our goal is to convince the Congress that D.C. does not even rise to the rank of a hostage in this struggle between the administration and the Republican Congress. The city is irrelevant to any solution that might be needed. Since none of the parties has anything to gain, the least the city is entitled to is being allowed to remain open for all of the 2014 fiscal year.”
Norton is right, and she’s found sympathy for her arguments even among some key Republicans, such as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Darrell Issa, R-California. But as a shutdown looms, tensions are rising since, as Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chair Tom Carper, D-Delaware, even a short government shutdown would have a “swift and severe” impact on the district.
Ultimately, this crisis within a crisis provides a reminder of the absurd circumstance of the District of Columbia.
Residents of Washington are taxed. They are subject to federal laws. They serve in America’s wars.
Yet, they have limited control over their own affairs and—despite Norton’s best efforts—a constrained voice in Congress.
The remedy is not complicated.
According to the latest Census estimates, the district has a larger population than two states—Vermont and Wyoming—and a larger level of economic activity than 16 states.
More than 40 years ago, then President Richard Nixon urged Congress to address the district’s circumstance, saying, “it should offend the democratic sense of this nation” that the residents of the nation’s capital city were then denied a voice in Congress and control over their own affairs.
The passage of time only makes the offense more severe and—as US politics grows more petty and petulant—more threatening to the taxed-but-not-represented residents of the District of Columbia.
Read Greg Mitchell on the “Disgrace” of shutdown media coverage.