In the face of a possible federal government shutdown, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray has made a bold move, declaring all local government services essential in order to keep their doors open.

The clock is ticking down for Capitol Hill lawmakers to pass an appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1, 2013. But partisan wrangling over the insertion of language that would repeal the Affordable Care Act could lead to a shutdown.

Since the District’s budget has to be approved by Congress as part of that appropriations process, a federal shutdown would also mean a D.C. shutdown. And most services, except for those defined as “essential” would be curtailed.

But Gray and other D.C. leaders say it is an outrage that the city has to pay for Congress’ ineffectiveness.

“I have determined that everything the District government does – protecting the health, safety and welfare of our residents and visitors – is essential,” said Mayor Gray in a Sept. 25 statement explaining his decision. “It is ridiculous that a city of 632,000 people – a city where we have balanced our budget for 18 consecutive years and have a rainy-day fund of well over a billion dollars – cannot spend its residents’ own local tax dollars to provide them the services they’ve paid for without Congressional approval.”

He added, “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. I will not allow the safety and well-being of District residents to be compromised by Congress’s dysfunction.”

Gray announced his decision Sept. 25 in a letter sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget informing them that the District’s government would remain open during the lapse in appropriations.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the city’s delegate on Capitol Hill, said she supported Gray’s decision. But she also decried the need to take such measures at all, saying this symbolizes why Congress should cut the District’s leading strings.

“As I have repeatedly told my colleagues throughout my service in Congress, no member of Congress, myself included, should ever tell the District of Columbia what to do or how to spend its locally raised funds,” she said in a statement. “…The city is well aware of the legal and political risks of its actions. The fact that the city has felt driven to circumvent the congressional process highlights the need for D.C. to be freed from being embroiled in federal matters and be granted autonomy over its own budget, as is the case of every other state, and other locality and territory in the country.”

Last spring, D.C. voters overwhelmingly supported a budget autonomy referendum unlinking the local budget from congressional oversight. And D.C. residents, who pay taxes just like other American citizens, should have more control over where that money is spent and should be able to benefit from those funds, leaders said.

“The money that the District would spend during the federal shutdown is local tax dollars, and not federal taxes,” said Councilwoman Anita Bonds, D-At Large, in a statement. “Our residents expect to see local tax dollars spent on the services that make the local government work every day, and which include vital services to Capitol Hill neighborhoods, families, and workers.”

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Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO