Amid federal shutdown, a show of Wilson Building solidarity

October 1, 2013

Mayor Vincent Gray sits before the council dais during Tuesday’s legislative meeting. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

As the federal government embarked on its first shutdown in 17 years Tuesday, District government leaders made an unusual show of solidarity when Mayor Vincent C. Gray was invited to address the D.C. Council at its legislative meeting Tuesday.

The council was set to vote on an emergency bill declaring all city employees “essential” and thus exempt from shutdown furloughs otherwise demanded by law, as well as designating a city reserve fund as available to pay for essential employees and activities. The gesture was largely symbolic, since Gray had already moved to designate all employees as exempt from furloughs and because the mayor, not the council, holds the keys to the reserve fund.

But there was no sign of tension when Gray strolled into the council chamber about 1 p.m. to witness the short debate and unanimous vote on the measure. It is rare for mayors to enter the council chambers, especially during legislative meetings; they typically testify once a year, when proposing their yearly budgets in the spring.

“I really think it is a seminal moment for our city that the executive and the legislative branch have come together on this hugely important issue,” Gray said after being invited to address the council by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “I think … the legislative branch putting the same message forward as the executive is a very powerful statement on behalf of the 630,000 people in the city.”

“We’re here to work together,” Mendelson said after Gray’s remarks.

Besides serving as a meeting of the John A. Wilson Building mutual admiration society, Gray’s appearance also served as an update on the District’s non-shutdown shutdown status. The mayor acknowledged “a very cooperative, collegial discussion” Monday with President Obama’s budget office — albeit one that came to no firm conclusion. The Office of Management and Budget has posted a link to a D.C. government shutdown page — one that on Tuesday afternoon was out of service.

Gray and a spokesman for Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi both said that the government is now being funded out of the Contingency Cash Reserve Fund approved for use by city lawyers. That means the OMB determination is moot for now, since the city is not directly challenging the established shutdown procedure. “That makes it a lot less contentious at this stage,” Gray said.

As for what happens if the shutdown lasts two weeks, draining the contingency fund? Gray said “my position today” is to keep on doing business as usual but that he would continue consulting with Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan and lawyers for Gandhi. A spokesman for Nathan, Ted Gest, declined to comment on Nathan’s position on what would happen next.

Gray also said he spoke Tuesday with congressional leaders — Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — about getting an exemption for the District budget through Congress in the coming days. Republican leaders this morning floated passing a District appropriations bill alongside bills funding the National Park Service and Veterans Affairs department. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has thus far rejected any piecemeal funding solutions.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | October 1, 2013