U.S. government shutdown could make Washington a smelly city

For now the garbage is still being picked up in Washington, D.C., but that could change if the federal government shutdown drags on and the U.S. capital is dragged down with it because of a unique set of rules.

D.C. not allowed to spend its budget without Congress authorization

People enjoy the area around the reflecting pool, in front of the closed Lincoln Memorial, on Tuesday in Washington. The federal government shutdown has so far not affected local city services, but that could change if it drags on. Alex Brandon/Associated Press (The Associated Press)

The garbage is still being picked up in Washington, D.C. — for now — but that could change if the federal government shutdown drags on and the U.S. capital is dragged down with it because of a unique set of rules.

The city technically doesn’t have control over its own finances — Congress does. The District of Columbia isn’t allowed to spend its budget without Congress authorization and it partly relies on federal appropriations to operate.

During a government shutdown, those appropriations are on hold just like the ones to federal agencies and services. Most of the city’s funding comes from local taxes, but the entire budget is still under the power of Capitol Hill.

As a result, city workers were off the job the last time the U.S. went through a partial shutdown in the mid-1990s. That meant the trash piled up and other local services, the department of motor vehicles and public libraries, for example, were affected by the nationwide shutdown.

The lack of autonomy in spending its own budget is an ongoing source of frustration for the city and Mayor Vincent Gray is not shy about saying so. In a recent weekly radio address, he said it is “ridiculous” that the city doesn’t have ultimate authority over its finances.

“We have balanced our budget for 18 consecutive years and have well over a billion dollars in the bank, yet we cannot spend our own money to provide our residents with the services they’ve paid for unless we get permission from a Congress that can’t even agree to pay its own bills,” said Gray.

32,000 city employees still at work

“Why on Earth should they have any say in how we handle our finances? Why should we be made to suffer at the hands of an irresponsible Congress when Congress should be the ones taking lessons from us on fiscal responsibility?” he said.

Gray promised not to stand idly by, and in preparation for this shutdown he sought to declare all city operations and workers essential to maintaining public health and safety. That would make all employees, not just firefighters, police and health workers who are classified as essential, exempt from the federal shutdown that has sent some 800,000 public servants home from work this week across the U.S.

The formal request went to the federal budget office and by Wednesday morning, the mayor’s office still hadn’t received a response.

In the meantime, 32,000 employees are still showing up for work and it’s business as usual. The city has so far been able to get around the shutdown because workers are getting paid out of a contingency fund that didn’t exist the last time. There are mixed legal opinions on whether this is something the fund should be used for or if it’s flouting federal law, but for now, the city is going ahead with the plan.

The pot of money is expected to run out in about two weeks and if the shutdown is still going on, the city has no clear answer on what it can do. This scenario, where a mayor is essentially banging on the White House door and demanding his city be immune from a shutdown, has never happened before.

If the shutdown drags on, it could hit D.C. hard not just because of a loss of local services, but because this is a government and tourism town, and the local economy will suffer.

Shutdown happy hours

There are some estimates that the Washington area could lose as much as $200 million US per day. Federal workers, whether they were told to stay at home or not, aren’t getting paid. Only active military members are getting regular paycheques, while other essential workers won’t get theirs on time, nd non-essential workers may or may not get paid retroactively.

Bars, restaurants and the social scene generally could see fewer customers since people will be more conservative in their spending while their paycheques are on hold and tourists avoid the city.

Washington’s many museums, monuments and attractions are shut down, which hurts the service industry and tour operators.

Some local eateries and watering holes, though, are trying to ease the pain around Washington by offering discounts for residents who show government identification passes. Free cupcakes and burgers, and deeper Happy Hour discounts are among the offers.

One popular bar is throwing shutdown parties every day starting at 1 p.m. with a DJ to entertain the crowd and only $1 beers that go up in price as the afternoon goes on.


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