As the shutdown dragged on, the mayor complained louder and louder: “We’re governed by the federal government’s action and unless the federal government authorizes it, D.C. workers are going to be in a bind.” Shuttered museums had local businesses worried about a drop in tourism. And Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton called it a “very special outrage” that the District’s local services could be disrupted by a dispute in a Congress where the city has no voting member.
The mayor doing the complaining was Marion Barry. Outside of that, the local reaction to this year’s federal shutdown was virtually the same as the last time this happened in 1995 and 1996. The District has managed, through some bureaucratic tricks, to stay open (spending down a $140 million reserve fund in 2013), or else things could have been worse here.
How bad were they anyway? Local health care organizations that serve the poor couldn’t get paid from the District’s Medicaid funds, a problem no state faced, because even our local portion of the federally supported program was tied up in the budget dispute. Thousands and thousands of federal workers around the area got a paycheck last week that was missing four days of salary lost to the shutdown. Parks that residents take for granted were shuttered, though Fox News and its cohorts only noticed the World War II Memorial closure. And the District stopped processing tax refunds and payments to Metro and began making preparations to stiff charter schools, too, if the billions of dollars in local tax revenue and fees that we spend here every year remained hostage to the Republican war on the Affordable Care Act.
The rhetoric from nearly two decades ago is right: It is, indeed, a very special outrage that our local libraries, parks, and trash trucks came within days of running out of funding because of a Congress that District voters don’t get to help elect. One way or the other, this ought to be the last time D.C. finds itself in this position.
If all goes according to plan, by Jan. 1, our local tax dollars will be ours to spend without waiting for recalcitrant yahoos from the rest of the country to back down from their Tea Party-inspired quests. That’s when the budget autonomy referendum District voters overwhelmingly approved is set to take effect. Even House Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa—one of the Obama administration’s leading scourges on the Hill—want to keep D.C. funds from being caught in future disputes, and if Issa’s bill for autonomy passes, that would ensure the referendum’s goals were met.
But the District shouldn’t have to beg and plead for independence in order to enjoy some. While Mayor Vince Gray deserves credit for finding creative ways to keep the D.C. government open despite the federal shutdown, it’s hard not to find some fault with his refusal to just spend local money with or without approval from Congress. “Power concedes nothing without a struggle,” as Gray quoted Frederick Douglass during a speech he gave last week on the shutdown. “It never has, and it never will.”
All the more reason for city leaders to stop wishing Congress would treat us fairly and to start acting as if budget autonomy were already a fait accompli. Would a Congress that literally cannot manage to keep the nation’s parks open really find the time or energy to unite in order to punish D.C. for operating libraries during a federal shutdown? Would a Democratic administration make the Democratic leaders of a virtually all-Democratic city the first people in history to be prosecuted for violating the Antideficiency Act?
The old methods—angry press conferences, attempts to pressure lawmakers from somewhere else who really don’t care what happens to District residents—led to virtually the same results, 17 years after the last shutdown. If a mess like this happens again, D.C. politicians should press on, keep our government working, and dare the feds to do something about it.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery