John A. Wilson Building
John A. Wilson Building Credit: Darrow Montgomery

This article also appears in our March 20 print issue under the headline “Meeting Adjourned.”

It only took a global pandemic to bring two reliably adversarial branches of the D.C. government into agreement. In what will likely be its final in-person legislative meeting for several weeks, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation Tuesday afternoon aimed at addressing many of the immediate impacts of the coronavirus.

The sweeping bill includes provisions intended to help hourly and contract employees, small businesses and nonprofits, renters, people receiving public benefits such as SNAP and TANF, people who need prescription drug refills, people seeking homeless services, and D.C. jail inmates, among others.

The bill also pauses the clock on Freedom of Information Act response deadlines, extends the deadline for Mayor Muriel Bowser to submit her budget to the Council from March 19 to May 6, and allows the Council to meet remotely. (The FOIA pause, in LL’s experience, is a waste of time because the D.C. government generally treats the 15-day legal deadline as more of a loose guideline anyway.)

Ahead of the unanimous vote, each of the 12 councilmembers—apparently in no hurry to leave room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building, which held more than the 50 people currently allowed to gather in one place—took turns, as they always do, to pat each other on the back.

One by one, each councilmember sang the familiar refrain: they each thanked the chairman, Phil Mendelson, and his staff; they thanked their colleagues and their staffs; they thanked their own staffs, and the chief financial officer, and the Council secretary, and the general counsel, and the Council budget director, and the assistant budget director, and the attorney general. Of course they thanked the mayor for her leadership, and they praised the hard decisions she’s had to make. The only people the lawmakers did not shower with praise was themselves. That would be tacky.

But the afternoon, while predictable, was not devoid of a bit of excitement. That came courtesy of Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, who lobbed two last minute amendments that caused Mendelson to bristle.

The chairman complained to his Ward 7 colleague, a former Council chairman himself, about the late introductions, which he says were shared with his office 10 minutes before the scheduled start of the day’s public meetings. Gray disputed that, saying that in fact his office circulated the amendments at midnight.

Gray’s first amendment removes the trigger that would activate United Medical Center’s financial control board if the hospital exceeds its $22.14 million subsidy from the District. Mendelson accepted the change, clarifying that the amendment only applies for as long as the Mayor’s declared state of emergency is in effect.

The second amendment, which was of particular interest to former At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who attended the meeting and told LL he was there to monitor Gray’s amendment, would have created a grant program to funnel money to private healthcare providers. Catania served on the Council from 1997 to 2015, when he gave up his seat to launch an unsuccessful bid for mayor. After leaving elected life, Catania opened a lobbying shop and has represented clients in the healthcare industry. He declined to comment after the meeting.

Mendelson said he met with Catania about the measure and after discussions with Bowser, decided that the grant fund was unnecessary for the time being.

Gray, who says he also met with Catania about the grant program, felt enough pushback from Mendelson, and withdrew the amendment. After the meeting, Gray told LL that he also spoke with private healthcare providers, who made an impassioned plea, which apparently had an impact on him.

In another post-meeting conversation, Mendelson told LL that he believes the mayor already has the authority to do much of what Gray’s amendment sought.

“Setting up a fund out of which no money can be spent because it hasn’t been appropriated, and using the reserve funds for the private sector, because that’s what we’re talking about, hospitals in the private sector, these are all legal questions, and they were not resolved,” he said.

If Gray’s efforts to squeeze a Catania-supported amendment into an emergency bill during a global pandemic provided the buzz, CFO Jeff DeWitt was there to sober the place up.

The hospitality industry accounts for 30 to 50 percent of the District’s sales tax revenue, DeWitt said, which comes to about $787 million in a normal year. It accounts for about 14 percent of D.C.’s employment and provides 8 percent of income tax revenue.

If the public health crisis doesn’t turn around and hospitality businesses remain closed for an extended period, he said D.C. will have to cut $500 million from its 2020 spending. The city could be looking at about 15 to 20 percent unemployment on a temporary basis.

“Whatever we choose to do, the community needs assistance to recover, but we also have to make sure we get through this,” DeWitt said, promising to give the mayor and chairman weekly updates. 

“No matter what you think you know, you don’t know, and it will change,” he added. “Who would have thought restaurants would close three weeks ago and hotels would be where they are?”