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At 40 years old, the District’s home rule government is practically a baby in the world of municipal independence. Those growing pains have their downsides—inefficiency, corruption, a lack of voting representation. But the District’s relative youth also means there’s plenty of room to try things for the first time. Witness D.C.’s response to the federal shutdown, when the city, used to closing down along with the feds, decided to stay open.
The idea came from freshman At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who proposed simply breaking federal law to keep the city running. Mayor Vince Gray picked it up and made it less likely to result in prison terms, declaring all city employees “essential” and funding them through the $144 million in the city’s rainy-day fund, which was technically savings from money Congress had already appropriated in past years. Libraries and rec centers stayed open, no one was furloughed, and, best of all, city officials didn’t have to break the law to do it.
The strategy wasn’t perfect. Had the shutdown gone on much longer, the District would have needed some increasingly creative legal and financial maneuvers. It would also have missed some transfers, like the quarterly funds it sends to charter schools.
But the shutdown ended just in time, and the District, for the first time in its history, stayed open when the federal government wasn’t. If Congress wouldn’t give the District budget autonomy, the District’s politicians, buoyed by the city’s healthy reserves, would do it themselves.