Keeping D.C. Open, Part 2

I’m sure you’ve heard that yesterday morning, Mayor Vincent Gray, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and a number of Councilmembers rallied at the Capitol to bring attention to the absurd injustice being done to D.C. residents by the federal shutdown. Congress has failed to approve the District’s local budget for FY14, and because of that failure, the District can’t spend its own money to keep the District government open.

Once again, DC Appleseed applauds District leaders for committing to keep the District government open anyway by what Congresswoman Norton yesterday called “unprecedented innovation.” By tapping its contingency reserves, as we recommended on the eve of the shutdown, the District government has been able to keep all its employees working.

However, as Mayor Gray wrote in a letter Tuesday to President Obama and congressional leaders, the District cannot operate on those reserves indefinitely. The Mayor noted that “[t]ime is running out—and, soon, I will have exhausted every resource available to me to protect our residents, our workers, and our visitors.”

Fortunately, there is a way to keep the District government open and fully funded even if Congress does not act.

Thanks to the Budget Autonomy Charter Amendment passed unanimously by the Council, signed by Mayor Gray, and overwhelmingly ratified by the people in the referendum last April, the District could now take action to spend its own money based on that Charter Amendment, rather than waiting on Congress. In fact, If D.C. leaders act quickly and decisively—as they have throughout the shutdown—there’s time to put the Charter Amendment and the local budget into effect within days.

Here’s how that could happen. Using his authority under the Charter Amendment, the Mayor can send a supplemental budget to the Council that would enact the FY14 budget act that Congress has failed to pass, with adjustments as needed to replenish the spent-down reserves. Using expedited procedures, the Council could quickly hold a hearing and pass this budget by emergency legislation. The Council would also later pass the same supplemental budget as a permanent act subject to congressional review, which is necessary to ensure funding for the rest of the fiscal year.

In addition, although the prior Council act authorizing the Charter Amendment provided that the Amendment would not apply until January 1, the Council can alter that act to make the Amendment apply immediately. Our pro bono partners at Latham & Watkins LLP concluded that this applicability provision is not part of the Charter Amendment, meaning the Council can change it right now and do so through emergency legislation.

On the first day of the shutdown, the Mayor and Council joined together to support legislation declaring all District operations essential and providing funding for those operations from the reserves. That legislation made it clear that it was only a stopgap measure until the moment when the Budget Autonomy Charter Amendment could be implemented to protect the District from shutdown.

We have now reached that moment—and we hope D.C. leaders come together once again to take the next step needed to keep D.C. open.

– Walter Smith

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