News & Politics

DC Government Seeks Additional Funding as Shutdown Continues

With DC’s reserve funds running low, city employees could have to work without pay if the shutdown lasts much longer.

The contingency fund that the District government has been tapping to fund its operations through the first two weeks of the federal shutdown is nearly exhausted, and now officials are scrambling to determine if there are other sources available to pay the city’s 32,000 employees as the shutdown drags on. City employees will receive their scheduled biweekly paychecks today, but whether the District will be able to make its October 29 payroll remains to be determined by a group of government lawyers.

Since October 1, the District has been running off its $144 million Contingency Cash Reserve Fund. But with that money nearly drained, attorneys in DC’s budget office are reviewing the possibility of drawing on two additional rainy-day accounts, Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vince Gray, tells Washingtonian.

But Ribeiro says the legal scrutiny of using these other contingency funds is yet another indication of the District’s complicated position in the shutdown. The federal budget impasse is keeping DC’s local budget—which needs to be approved by Congress—from being put into effect.

“Even if we do all those things we’re still in this absurd situation,” Ribeiro says. “Fifteen minutes of the Senate’s time and 30 second’s of the President’s signature could solve this problem. This is a manufactured crisis.”

House Republicans passed a bill in the shutdown’s early days that would have permitted DC to tap its regular budget, but the Senate and White House have refused single-issue funding bills. Gray brought the city’s growing frustration to a national spotlight last week when he crashed a press conference by Senate Democrats and asked Majority Leader Harry Reid to move on an approval of the District’s budget.

“I’m on your side, don’t screw it up,” Reid replied to Gray.

Some city officials, such as DC Council member David Grosso, have said the District should ignore the shutdown altogether and spend its budget at will, even though that could technically break the federal Anti-Deficiency Act, a law that prohibits the spending of money that is not appropriated. Gray has said he won’t cross the rarely, if ever, broken law, which has never resulted in a prosecution, much less a conviction since its introduction in 1884.

The District’s last-ditch effort is a $110 million Emergency Cash Reserve Fund, which Ribeiro says is the “break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency” money. Still, that would only cover one more $98 million pay period, and not much else.

And even if DC can use the larger contingency funds, Ribeiro says it is possible the District government will continue to miss its scheduled payments to vital programs like Medicaid and Metro. The District is also coming up on a deadline for payments to charter schools.

“There is no manual, there is no book, there is no precedent for running the District like this,” he says. “It’s uncharted territory. It’s insane.”

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.