October 11, 2013

It would be unkind to suggest that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Mayor Vincent Gray (D) were trucking with the enemy when they joined forces last week with House Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Darrell Issa and other Republicans on a proposal to extract city appropriations from the stalled continuing resolution to fund the federal government.

Only a Democratic partisan would think of city officials that way.

The GOP proposal, after all, would allow the city to spend its locally raised funds during the federal government shutdown — as happened when Republicans closed the government during the Clinton administration. So why won’t the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama support the GOP initiative?

The answer could be seen Wednesday in a front-page Post article on the shutdown: “What to fund during impasse is no open-and-shut case.”

Simply put, Republicans hope that individual spending bills will ease pressure to end the shutdown.

And the Republican proposal — which is, indeed, helpful to the District — aims to drive a wedge between this Democratic city and the president. The city’s budget must be approved by Congress through the appropriation process. In essence, the GOP is picking and choosing which federal programs to fund to ease political heat or garner constituent favor, while trying to win concessions from the president, who wants to reopen the entire government.

The District should not be caught in the middle of this combat.

We deserve autonomy over our budget, as Obama recommended in his budget and as District voters, by referendum, have said they want.

This is where the sincerity of Boehner and Issa is called into question.

If House Republicans want the city to control its budget, they could make that happen in a heartbeat. They have voted more than 40 times to derail or kill the Affordable Care Act. Scheduling a vote on D.C. budget autonomy should be a piece of cake. Democratic votes would ensure passage. Senate passage and White House support are virtually assured. What’s the holdup?

The Senate gave the District budget autonomy in its version of the 1973 home-rule bill. I was part of the Senate District Committee staff that drafted the legislation. House conservatives balked, however, and the autonomy provision was dropped.

Where do House conservatives stand now?

Meanwhile, today’s challenge:

The District is hurting. Its reserve funds are being depleted to pay city expenses. The shutdown prohibits the District from paying Medicaid providers, Metro, the Water and Sewer Authority and, soon, public charter schools. Funds for police, fire protection and trash collection are in jeopardy. Businesses are suffering.

There’s little chance of stopping those who want to join with Boehner, Issa et al. in taunting Democrats and the president if city officials prefer the old-school tactics of getting in the face of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), straightening out the president and doing a public number on the administration. Sure, lose old friends while courting “new friends” . . . such as they are.

But don’t lose sight of the fact that D.C. reserves are being depleted as the city continues to provide vital services for residents, workers and visitors to the nation’s capital.

Why not call on congressional Democrats and Republicans, and the White House, to commit to replenishing the reserve fund and making the District whole? After all, their action — or inaction — has forced the drawdown. Those funds should be replaced, just as Congress and the administration have agreed to make up the lost pay of furloughed federal workers.

And keep sight of another reality: The District is not indifferent to the federal appropriations process.

Norton recognizes that fact. In her written response to a DC for Democracy Questionnaire for the April 3, 2012, Democratic primary, she wrote: “Appropriated funds account for a major part of the District’s funds for vital city services, make the entire appropriations process, beyond the D.C. appropriations, a priority.” She added: “The District is facing similar cuts to other cities but unlike U.S. cities, the District has no state to help make up the difference for federal appropriations.”

Here’s why: In fiscal 2011, 28 percent of the District’s budget, or $2.5 billion, consisted of federal funds. True, other states and localities also received such grants. But the District is also slated to receive $142 million in other direct appropriations from Congress for city functions.

That alone gives the city a substantial stake in the federal appropriations process and the government’s reopening.

Republicans have made the District part of their scheme to slice and dice the federal government while extorting the president of the United States.

In opposing the GOP scheme, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) called it “politricks” and said, “It’s divide and conquer.”

The District is the nation’s capital, and perhaps such shenanigans come with the territory. But we don’t have to go along with the gag.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.