Mayor Gray Says All DC Employees Are “Essential” if Government Shuts Down

Even if the federal government shuts down next week, the DC government plans to stay open. It's a potentially risky move by city leaders.

By: Benjamin Freed

If the federal government shuts down next week, the District government won't be going down with it, says Mayor Vince Gray. Even though it might put DC officials on the wrong side of a federal law, Gray is declaring all city workers and operations "essential," a maneuver designed to prevent services such as trash collection, building inspections, business permitting, and libraries from having to close if Congress can't finalize a deal on federal spending.

"Congress can’t even get its own fiscal house in order; they should be taking lessons from us rather than imposing needless suffering on us," Gray says in a news release. "I will not allow the safety and well-being of District residents to be compromised by Congress’s dysfunction.”

Because the District's budget is subject to Congressional oversight, local government is essentially another federal agency for bookkeeping purposes. When the federal government shut down for six days in 1995, DC's government shuttered too, save agencies such as police, fire, and schools.

Gray also sent along his decision to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is in charge of making preparations for a potential shutdown that could begin next Tuesday.

However, keeping the District government open when there is no federal spending plan could put DC's elected officials—and civil servants—in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, an 1884 law designed to the distribution of funds that are not appropriated. Nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted under the law, but Gray's stance, which was egged on yesterday by members of the DC Council, has earned a few warnings.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is mostly supportive of Gray's decision, but she offers some caution in a statement. “Under the Home Rule Act, the mayor is the chief executive officer of the District, and I will not second guess his determination that all D.C. government operations are essential and will therefore continue if the federal government shuts down on October 1," Norton says. "The city is well aware of the legal and political risks of its actions."

Norton's ideal solution, if the government really is headed toward a shutdown, is a separate bill that authorizes the District to spend its own funds even if the feds close the blinds. Congress passed a similar bill in December 1995 to spare DC from the effects of a second, 22-day shutdown that lasted into January 1996. Norton sent letters last week to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, asking for a similar pass this time around, but her spokesman told Washingtonian yesterday she is still waiting for a response.

Oh, by the way, if DC's government stays up-and-running during a federal budget shutdown, that means there will be no parking ticket holiday. But at least the trash will get picked up on time.