Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson
Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson

Mayor Vince Gray and members of the D.C. Council were supposed to talk this morning about preparations for a partial shutdown of the city government in the event of a federal government shutdown. Instead, they left breakfast considering a plan that would keep the city government open and break federal law.

During a presentation from City Administrator Allen Lew on what would happen during a shutdown (less garbage collection, only two-thirds of city employees on the job), At-Large Councilmember David Grosso proposed continuing to spend the city’s money without congressional approval. Grosso’s idea soon gained traction among councilmembers and the mayor, both as a way to keep services running and gain publicity for D.C. budget autonomy.

The breakfast discussion moved Gray to postpone a press conference scheduled for this afternoon with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, where he’d planned to discuss the shutdown preparations. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Gray plan to meet later today to discuss averting a local shutdown, with Mendelson promising to introduce a bill by Tuesday that would keep the District government running. Mendelson tells LL that he has the required nine votes to pass the bill.

Because the District’s budget has to be approved by Congress, staying open without a law allowing the city’s money to be spent would violate the federal Anti-Deficiency Act. The consequences for defying the law could be dire: Attorney General Irv Nathan said at the meeting that the mayor and city employees would be eligible for fines and two years in prison. More seriously for the District at large, Nathan said breaking the law could lead to the dissolution of the Home Rule Act and Gray’s exit from office.

“In my view, it would be inappropriate for elected officials, government officials to basically engage in civil disobedience and subject the District to significant adverse legal consequences,” Nathan said.

Grosso doubted that the Department of Justice would pursue the District for trying to spend its own money: “I can’t imagine how Eric Holder would come in and arrest anyone of us for doing this.”

Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi initially said that he would be unable to appropriate money to the city for fear of violating the law, but eventually conceded that he would probably be able to pay the salaries of “essential” city employees, even if the Council and mayor declared all employees to be essential.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery