D.C.’s defying the shutdown. Here are 5 other ways they could make life better by ignoring the feds.

September 25, 2013
(Jacquelyn Martin - Associated Press)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is tired of preparing his city for government shutdowns, and he's not going to take it anymore: On Wednesday, he told the federal Office of Management and Budget that all D.C. government workers are "essential" and wouldn't be furloughed in the event that Congress can't get its act together.

That may or may not be strictly legal, but I'm betting Gray has some kind of assurance that punitive action won't be taken. Which begs the question: With the city's actual government independence appearing as unlikely as ever, what other acts of civil disobedience could the District undertake on its citizens' behalf? Herewith, a few ideas:

1. Permit a 200-foot-tall building. 

The city is in favor of lifting limits on the height of District buildings, which would create more  office space and housing in a city that desperately needs it. But the federal National Capital Planning Commission still hates the idea. If the law doesn't change, the city could sanction a skinny tower, anyway, and see what the feds would do about it.

2. Put a burger joint in Franklin Square. 

Many of the District's parks are owned by the National Park Service, which has special rules about what is and isn't allowed in them. Like food sales, for example, by anyone other than the NPS's official concessionaire. Which means that it would be nearly impossible to get something like the awesome Shake Shack in New York's Madison Square short of some mild defiance.

3. Send a tax bill to the White House.

The District is at a large structural disadvantage because it can't tax federal property, which takes up 20 percent of the city's land mass. The Office of the D.C. Chief Financial Officer found that being able to charge such a tax would earn the city $540 million a year -- about eight percent of the city's current budget -- and could help fund such things as an expanded Circulator system, additional city librarians and improved sports fields.

4. Institute congestion pricing

The District isn't supposed to tax the income of non-residents. But its roads are extremely clogged at rush hours, and those commuters would probably pay a fee to cross bridges coming into the city. Those proceeds could help improve the public transportation that we'd rather the commuters use, anyway. (Yes, the so-called commuter tax has been shot down before, which is why extralegal action might be called for.)

5. Allow pop-up cafes on Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Those broad, open sidewalks along the avenue between the Capitol and the White House? They're also owned by the National Park Service, which hasn't so much as put bike racks on them. Because of security concerns and the foibles of centuries-old urban planning, these spaces have precious little street-level retail. But they're certainly large enough for some tables and chairs and a bagel place.

Please note: None of the above constitutes actual legal advice.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on business policy, including lobbying, government contracting, and international trade, with a bit of urban affairs and infrastructure on the side.
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