At first glance, the shutdown of the federal government is disastrous for the District of Columbia. While the city runs its own municipal government, it’s the only jurisdiction in the country whose budget and revenues are controlled by Congress. And while the city has continued to operate normally during the shutdown by tapping an emergency reserve, those funds will run dry as soon as next week, affecting schools, trash collection, and other city services.
Due to its designation as a federal enclave, D.C. has long been disenfranchised and disempowered. But what’s different this time around is that the capital has attracted national attention.
“It’s very simple,” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told National Journal at an event hosted by the voting-rights advocacy group DC Vote on Wednesday night, which attracted the attention of reporters from several national outlets. “It’s our money and we want to have access to our money, our budget dollars. All they have to do is say here is the authority to spend your own money.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the House’s non-voting delegate from Washington, came to the event straight from a private Democratic caucus meeting with President Obama where she scolded him for not prioritizing the city even as its on the “brink of disaster.”
“It is my obligation to speak up for this city whether to the president of the United States or to Republicans,” Norton told reporters Wednesday. “That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.”
GOP lawmakers have sought to use D.C.’s appropriations as a political wedge issue against Democrats, voting to allow the city to spend its own funds after Democrats opposed any piecemeal bills to restore funding to the government. That’s an approach that would allow the city to spend its money.
Norton said the president asked her whether she really believes Republicans had the District’s priorities at heart. She responded that frankly, she didn’t care.
“What do I care?” she said. “Sure it’s for their convenience, but what difference should that make to the District of Columbia?”
At-large D.C. councilman David Grosso had a more radical agenda, telling National Journal in an interview that what some council members had advocated is that the District of Columbia should no longer ask for permission to spend its own money, which would be a violation of the federal Antideficiency Act. “My guess is that Eric Holder, as a D.C. native and resident, would probably not come after us with penalties, so we should therefore go ahead and do it,” he said.
“It’s a new attitude in D.C.” he added. “We’re no longer going to ask for permission. We’re going to stand up for our rights and spend our local money.”
Grosso compared D.C.’s fight for statehood to the fight for civil rights, saying it took working both inside the system and outside the system to bring change. “It’s radical because it’s civil disobedience,” he said. “It’s actually the most direct form of civil disobedience. Indirect is when you block the streets and say we want our rights. Direct is when you actually do something that moves forward the issue that you care about.”
In past years Gray and members of the D.C. Council have been arrested protesting unjust riders in federal spending bills. City councilwoman Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3 in the District, says she’d like to see something like that this time around. “I’m quite comfortable with defiance,” she told National Journal, adding, “It’s an occasion to call attention rather prominently to the circumstances that we have to live under.”