8 ways a government shutdown will make D.C. residents’ lives worse

September 25, 2013

Government shutdowns are bad for lots of reasons. Visas don't get processed. Federal workers don't get paid. Though nowhere near the pain of potentially defaulting on the national debt, shutting down the government could even cost more money than it saves when all's said and done.

If you live or work in the District of Columbia, however, the downside is much more pronounced (unless, as Matt Yglesias points out, you're a bar owner or a rodent). Since the non-state is the only jurisdiction prohibited from spending its local funds in the event of Congress not coming to an agreement, the city government becomes a lot less functional. Here's what you should expect to wake up to on October 1, if there's no deal.

Rusty the Red Panda: Off limits. (Smithsonian National Zoo - Getty Images)
Rusty the Red Panda: Off limits. (Smithsonian National Zoo - Getty Images)

1. Parks, museums, and the Zoo closed: All Smithsonian museums, federal monuments, the National Zoo, and public facilities in National Parks like Rock Creek Park would be closed. Because tourists probably won't realize it in advance, they'll probably flood downtown Starbuckses and Potbellies with bored out-of-towners.

Lights off at those shiny new libraries. (Astrid Riecken - Washington Post)
Lights off at those shiny new libraries. (Astrid Riecken - Washington Post)

2. Libraries and recreation centers dark: All D.C. libraries and recreation centers will be closed, giving kids fewer places to hang out after school, which means who knows what kinds of trouble.


These guys: Not on the job. (Sarah Voisin / The Washington Post)

3. Department of Public Works off duty: Trash collection would be suspended for a week, as well as street sweeping, which this time of year means some very clogged drains.

Park it, DDOT. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)
Park it, DDOT. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)

4. Circulator offline: While the Metro would stay open and WMATA buses would keep running, D.C.'s super-convenient Circulator buses would have to stay in the garage.


DMV apocalypse. (Tom Allen - The Washington Post)

5. Permit offices and the DMV shut: The Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs are closed, meaning even longer lines for licenses, permits, and car registrations when the shutdown eventually ends.


Marion Barry can go ahead and park his Jag wherever, though police still have the authority to issue tickets. (Matt McClain/THE WASHINGTON POST)

6. No parking enforcement: Okay, you probably don't mind that so much, but it does cost the city money and could lead to shortfalls down the road.

You can study, but you can't go to class. (Matt McCain - The Washington Post)
You can study, but you can't go to class. (Matt McCain - The Washington Post)

7. University of the District of Columbia shuttered: You might not be the one with your academic year interrupted, but at least sympathize with the poor students who'll likely have to make up the class time later.


Some of these the District doesn't quite own. (Robert Thomson - The Washington Post)

8. Potential loss of city equipment and buildings: The city has a master lease on pieces of equipment like traffic lights, computers, and public safety vehicles, as well as a contractual agreement to use facilities like the Unified Communications Center, which controls all the city's emergency systems -- as long as payments are made on time. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton warns that they could be repossessed if the city lacks the budget authority to do so. And in any case, ongoing worries about the city's ability to use its own money could make it more expensive to borrow, which the city has to do every year for capital expenditures.

The city plans to submit its detailed shutdown plan to the federal Office of Management and Budget today.

Now, the city may decide to avoid some of this by simply defying the federal government and providing services as usual. It's unlikely that federal leaders will punish the city for doing so, but you never know.

The silliest thing is that D.C. is facing this problem at all. Norton has been trying since the last time around to pass legislation that would exempt the city from prohibitions against spending its own money. Again and again, it's failed, for reasons that have to do with the House Republicans' enduring unwillingness to allow D.C. any measure of autonomy at all.

CorrectionAn earlier version of this post misidentified the reason why the city borrows money. It's for capital projects, not to balance the budget. 

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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Dylan Matthews · September 25, 2013