With the D.C. Council’s failure to override Mayor Vincent Gray’s (D) veto on the Large Retailer Accountability Act, it’s easy for progressive Washingtonians to forget that we’re blessed with a relatively activist government. Flawed, sure. Corrupt, you bet. But activist as well. Or at least a bit insurrectionist.
Tuesday morning, the Council met to hear a presentation by City Administrator Allen Lew. The subject was the consequences D.C. would face if the federal government shuts down amid the latest round of budgetary chicken. Turns out the District’s in a bit of a tight spot. Because the D.C. budget must be approved by Congress, it is illegal for our city to spend its own money if the federal government closes its doors. That would mean only two-thirds of city employees could report to work, less trash collection, and cuts in other services.
The councilmembers didn’t take that sitting down. According to Washington City Paper, David Grosso (I-At Large) first proposed during the meeting to defy federal law and keep the city functioning at full capacity, regardless of whether Congress can get its act together. Other councilmembers and even the mayor soon lent their support as well, both to keep the District’s doors open and to gain publicity for budget autonomy fights. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told City Paper he would draw up legislation to do so, and that he had the nine votes to pass it.
Even Gray, who has been more cautious than the Council in past budget autonomy fights, was emboldened by the idea, asking, “Isn’t this how the country was founded?”
Of course, there were voices of caution. D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan outlined the possible legal consequences of defying the federal Anti-Deficiency Act—the law that shackles the District’s budget to Congress. If they chose this “irresponsible” route, according to Nathan, the mayor and city employees could face fines and up to two years in prison. Even worse, it could lead to the dissolution of the Home Rule Charter and Gray being forced from office. He urged the Council to desist.
But in the end, he didn’t need to worry about the legislators so much as their executive. In a surprise move Wednesday morning, Gray announced he would designate every district employee “essential,” allowing them to stay on the job during a shutdown and making him the focus of any prosecution should a shutdown occur.
Now, let’s be clear. None of this will likely come to fruition. Congressional Republicans are more keen to haggle over a debt ceiling increase than a continuing budget resolution. And even if there was a shutdown, it’s unlikely Eric Holder would send his goons down to the Wilson building to enforce such a ridiculous law as the Anti-Deficiency Act.
But this is still politics, and symbolism still matters. Gray’s announcement yesterday, along with incensed statements from the likes of Councilmembers Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Grosso, help bring more attention to the uniquely unfair position D.C. occupies in the national polity.
D.C. no longer needs congressional oversight of its budget, but instead is routinely hampered by it. As Gray said in his statement, the city has balanced its budget every year for the past 18 and has a rainy day fund of over $1 billion. As dysfunctional as our local government is, it works a helluva lot better than most other large American cities, and it’s a cruel absurdity that the likes of Tea Party Republicans in Congress can have any impact on its governance at all.
It’s fair to count me as one of the Gray administration’s most strident critics. But each time he and the councilmembers use direct action tactics to pressure the federal government and bring D.C. budget issues to the forefront—as they did in 2011 when Gray and 40 other protesters were arrested at a statehood protest—they are firmly in the right. Furloughing D.C. employees doesn’t just count as an inconvenience for residents, it hurts the workers’ abilities to pay their bills. It hurts the whole District economy. And city officials should stand up in opposition, even if it breaks the law.
In the end, there’s little downside to Gray’s announcement yesterday. And, even in the worst case scenario, it’d be nice to see a D.C. politico go to jail for something noble for once.
Picket with Gavin at firstname.lastname@example.org.