September 24, 2013

SO ABSURDLY unfair is the fact of the District being held hostage to the dysfunctional federal budget process that some city officials are threatening to defy Congress. As sympathetic as we are to the determination to keep local government fully running, a better approach is to get behind legal efforts that would allow the District to spend local monies in the event of a shutdown.

If the federal government shuts down Oct. 1, a depressingly plausible prospect, D.C. residents will feel the impact more than most Americans because the city is barred from spending its revenues absent a federal appropriation. Even though D.C.’s budget is largely comprised of locally raised taxes, in a shutdown only essential services can continue. That translates into fewer garbage pickups, no street cleaning and shuttered libraries and recreation centers.

“Enough is enough,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), expressing a sentiment, shared by other council members, that city officials should simply ignore federal directives and continue on with business. “See what happens,” he told Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) at a breakfast meeting Tuesday.

Elected officials should not be so nonchalant about violating the law they have sworn to uphold. As D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan made clear, the federal anti-deficiency law — incorporated into the city’s charter — makes it illegal for the District to expend any funds without an appropriation from Congress; there could be “significant adverse consequences.” Not only could this imperil the city employees directed to break the law but it would also cede the high moral ground in the fight for the city’s rights.

The District’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), has called on leaders in the House and Senate to pass a measure that would keep the city fully operating during a federal shutdown. There’s precedent for such action (orchestrated by former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich during the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns), so D.C. officials would do well to help Ms. Norton in her appeal, rather than undermine it by thumbing their nose at Congress. Mr. Gray, expected to announce his approach on Wednesday, should explore all the authority his office has to minimize the impacts of any shutdown by identifying what constitutes essential services.