Shutdown’s Silver Lining for the District

The shutdown underscores the case for D.C. statehood.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Oct. 10, 2013, 8:16 a.m.

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.”

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