D.C. Leaders: Give Us Our Money or Give Us Handcuffs

The shutdown’s put a spotlight on the District’s fight for autonomy, and some City Council members are ready to break the law.

A protester holds a placard as Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray speaks to the media after a news conference with members of the DC Council 'to call on the Senate and the administration to free DC's local budget during the federal government shutdown' at the Senate Swamp October 9, 2013.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Oct. 11, 2013, 11:58 a.m.

The fed­er­al shut­down has put the Dis­trict of Columbia in the fa­mil­i­ar po­s­i­tion of polit­ic­al prop. This time, however, city lead­ers won’t sit for it.

“It’s a new at­ti­tude in D.C.,” coun­cil­mem­ber Dav­id Grosso told Na­tion­al Journ­al at an event hos­ted by the vot­ing-rights ad­vocacy group DC Vote earli­er this week. “We’re no longer go­ing to ask for per­mis­sion. We’re go­ing to stand up for our rights and spend our loc­al money.”

The prob­lem is that even while the city runs its own mu­ni­cip­al gov­ern­ment, it’s the only jur­is­dic­tion in the United States whose budget and rev­en­ues are con­trolled by Con­gress. For the past two weeks, the city has got­ten by by tap­ping an emer­gency re­serve, but those funds will run dry as early as Tues­day of next week, leav­ing city ser­vices such as schools, po­lice, and trash col­lec­tion in the lurch.

Re­pub­lic­ans have used D.C.’s ap­pro­pri­ations as a polit­ic­al wedge is­sue, vot­ing to al­low the city to spend its own funds after Demo­crats op­posed any piece­meal bills to re­store fund­ing to the gov­ern­ment. The may­or has sought to ne­go­ti­ate with con­gres­sion­al lead­ers, and even took a more ag­gress­ive ap­proach Wed­nes­day, con­front­ing Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Harry Re­id on the steps of the Cap­it­ol.

But Grosso says D.C. should not be ask­ing for per­mis­sion to spend its own money any­more, a move that would vi­ol­ate the fed­er­al An­ti­de­fi­ciency Act. He put D.C.’s fight for autonomy in a his­tor­ic­al con­text. “The biggest most vi­ol­ent de­bates we’ve had in this coun­try are sep­ar­a­tion of state and fed­er­al powers,” he said. “That’s been de­bated even pri­or to the birth of this coun­try.”

May­or Vin­cent Gray dis­missed Grosso’s ap­proach in an ad­dress Thursday night, ar­guing that vi­ol­at­ing the An­ti­de­fi­ciency Act un­der­mines D.C.’s mor­al au­thor­ity in ne­go­ti­ations with Con­gress. He also said such a move could make Dis­trict un­der­lings vul­ner­able. “Any­one who has a role in ob­lig­at­ing the Dis­trict to pay funds or dis­burs­ing those funds—people who let con­tracts, or ac­count­ants, or payroll of­ficers—could po­ten­tially be at risk of con­vic­tion for a fed­er­al felony that car­ries a max­im­um of two years in fed­er­al pris­on and a $5,000 fine,” the may­or said Thursday. Gray ad­ded that while he has “no prob­lem tak­ing these leg­al risks my­self,” he’s not com­fort­able put­ting his em­ploy­ees in leg­al jeop­ardy.

Grosso isn’t buy­ing it. “When you stand up for your­self and you stand up for what’s right no mat­ter what, you have great­er mor­al au­thor­ity,” he said in a fol­low-up in­ter­view Fri­day. “I don’t think it’s a very hard choice there,” Grosso said. “I’m will­ing to break that law.”

So far his po­s­i­tion has won the sup­port of half a dozen or so D.C. coun­cil­mem­bers, in­clud­ing Dav­id Catania, An­ita Bonds, Kenyan Mc­Duf­fie, Mary Cheh, and Tommy Wells.

“Who would they send to ar­rest us?” Grosso con­tin­ued. “The Cap­it­ol Hill po­lice? Who would ar­rest the people of the Dis­trict of Columbia for spend­ing their own money? I can’t fig­ure it out.”

Cor­rec­tion: an earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­spelled a coun­cil­mem­ber’s name.

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