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Posted at 5:20 PM ET, 02/23/2011

How will a federal government shutdown affect D.C.?

By Mike DeBonis


Early Saturday, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure cutting $61 billion from the federal budget. The Senate is unlikely to agree, raising the prospect that the government could shut down as soon as March 4 for the first time since January 1996.

My colleague Ed O'Keefe has done a fine job laying out what would happen in case the federal government shuts down. But what about the District government? During the last shutdown crisis, in 1995 and 1996, the city was affected during the first of two shutdowns, from Nov. 14 to Nov. 19, 1995, after Congress refused to appropriate District operating funds.

So what happened?

The city kept home all but "essential" employees, but it defined "essential" rather liberally. Police and firefighters remained on the job; public schools, courts and hospitals remained open. According to a Washington Post report at the time, a full two-thirds of city workers were deemed essential. The designations were left up to Mayor Marion Barry, who had to be mindful that whichever functions of government he chose to restore, there was no guarantee that Congress would retroactively agree to pay for them.

Revenue collection was considered essential, for instance: The lottery remained running, and while parking-ticket-writers were at first kept off the job, they came back after one day of shutdown. Libraries remained closed; health providers and building inspectors were off the job until Nov. 17; the Department of Motor Vehicles remained shuttered until Nov. 18; and garbage collection wasn't fully restored until Nov. 19.

Among the effects, on Nov. 15, from a Post report: "Malfunctioning traffic signals at three busy intersections stayed that way: the Key Bridge at M Street NW, Canal Road entering the Whitehurst Freeway and New York and Fairview avenues NE. Unless there is a safety hazard -- say, if a traffic light falls to the street -- no repair work will be done during the crisis, the city said."

The city was spared from the second shutdown, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 6, 1996, after the two houses agreed on a District funding bill. But figures published in The Post at the time indicate that the first shutdown cost the city an estimated $7.3 million in wages paid to employees who were not required to report to work, plus about $78.5 million in revenues that went uncollected or were collected late. In fiscal terms, the District government at the time was a somewhat smaller enterprise than it is today.

So what will happen this time?

The District's relationship to the federal government has changed since the 1995 shutdown -- the federal block payment for city operations was discarded in 1997 in return for the feds assuming city courts and prisons as well as increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates. But Congress still needs to vote to approve city spending, and the House has not approved the financial services funding bill that city appropriations are rolled into. It is thus far unclear to city officials how matters could proceed.

"That is something we're literally just addressing today," City Administrator Allen Y. Lew said Wednesday. "I really don't have a good answer for you." A spokesman for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer said that agency's attorneys have been studying the matter since Tuesday, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is also looking into the matter, a spokeswoman said.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) addressed the matter at his weekly news conference this afternoon. He turned the prospect of a government disruption into a passionate argument for District autonomy.

"The District of Columbia government is treated like another agency of the federal government, which is entirely inappropriate," he said. "There's no way that Cleveland or Detroit or Los Angeles or Boston or anywhere else in this nation is having to have this kind of discussion today. ... Our budget is still treated very inappropriately by the federal government."

That's an argument that resonated in 1995. The late Charles F.C. Ruff, the famed litigator who was then the city's corporation counsel, also pointed out the essential unfairness of the situation at the time, given that the bulk of the city's money was raised from its own residents, not from the federal budget: "Something like 80 percent of our money comes from D.C. taxes. One might ask why it is we're not allowed to go about our business when we're paying for most of it ourselves."

The Post editorial board also weighed in on the matter in late 1995: "The responsible answer in the event of any more federal government shutdowns or budget stalemates is legislation that would let the city government obligate its own revenues equal to the lowest existing spending level previously authorized." But no such bill ever passed.

UPDATE, 7:35 P.M.: Norton released a statement on the issue this evening:

As the likelihood of a federal government shutdown increased after the House of Representatives last week passed a full-year continuing resolution, we have been making every effort to ensure that the District of Columbia government would continue to be able to spend its local funds if the federal government shuts down on March 4.  Because the District does not yet have budget autonomy, Congress technically appropriates to the District its own local taxpayer-raised funds, and the District is only allowed to spend such funds until the current continuing resolution expires on March 4.  We have been in contact with the Obama administration, House and Senate leadership, and Mayor Gray to ensure that a federal government shutdown does not force a local government to close, even temporarily.

By Mike DeBonis  | February 23, 2011; 5:20 PM ET
Categories:  Congress, The District  
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I recall the DC Government being closed in January 1996 it came along with the blizzard of 96 and along with the furlough I recall being off for a week.

Posted by: annonymous2 | February 23, 2011 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I remember that too. It was very stressful, because we didn't know if we were going to get paid or not.

I don't think city government was smaller in the 1990s. When we were put under the control board, the federal government took over parole for adult offenders, closed down the Lorton correctional facility and moved most of those prisoners into federal custody, and also took over Superior Court.

Posted by: tacard1 | February 24, 2011 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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