News & Politics

Mayor Gray Demands Sitdown With Obama and Congress to Get DC Out of Shutdown Mess

The District government is running low on emergency funds and needs a solution soon if it's going to be able to continue operating through the federal shutdown.

The District government has been paying its bills out of a $144 million emergency reserve fund since the government shutdown began. But a week in, that fund is “dwindling,” a spokesman for DC Mayor Vince Gray says, and now Gray is demanding a sitdown with President Obama and congressional leaders in hopes of allowing the District to tap its regular funds.
The emergency fund started with enough money to sustain the DC government, which has 32,000 employees, through a bit longer than one two-week pay period. (The biweekly payroll comes out to about $98 million.) However, with no apparent end to the shutdown within reach, the District is getting nervous that in a few more days, it will be unable to sustain local services.
“In no other part of the country are Americans facing the loss of basic municipal or state services due to the federal government shutdown,” Gray writes in a letter sent today to Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Families in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas are not worried that their local governments won’t be able to maintain basic services like schools, police and fire protection, or trash collection—and neither should families here in the District of Columbia.”
DC is in that situation because its budget is treated by Congress similar to that of a federal agency. District services have kept running during the shutdown because Gray declared all city employees “essential” prior to the shutdown and the DC Council authorized use of the reserve money. But even with the contingency fund, the District is still missing some of its financial obligations. The emergency fund does not cover payments to Medicaid providers, Metro, or charter schools.
The House passed a bill a few days into the shutdown that authorizes the District to spend its own funds without federal approval, but congressional Democrats, who control the Senate, have resisted any “piecemeal” bills that carve out single-issue appropriations from a comprehensive spending bill. The vote on the DC funding measure split Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton from her fellow Democrats, but Gray’s office says the need for DC to be able to pay its bills should transcend parties.
“If the Democrats are standing in our way, we’re going to call them out,” says Gray’s spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. “There are things we cannot do. It’s time people stop treating us like the Department of Homeland Security. We are not a federal agency.”
Reid’s office did not respond to questions if he would attend a meeting with Gray, Obama, and Boehner. The speaker’s office might be amenable to a sitdown, though Boehner’s office suggests it might not be that useful. “I wouldn’t rule it out, but since the House already passed a DC funding bill last week, I think Mayor Gray ought to concentrate on getting Senator Reid to pass it and President Obama to sign it,” Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel writes in an email.
Even if he doesn’t sit down with Gray, Obama, and Boehner, Reid still might be hearing soon from frustrated District officials and residents. Gray, Norton, and members of the DC Council are planning a demonstration tomorrow at 11 AM on a swatch of the US Capitol’s East Lawn nicknamed, perhaps appropriately, the “Senate Swamp.”

Shutdown Meeting Request Letter to President Obama

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.