Norton Leads Fight to Avoid D.C. Shutdown

James Wright | 3/2/2011, 7:19 p.m.
The District's representative to the U.S. Congress is working to make sure that the city...
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (left) and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton

The District's representative to the U.S. Congress is working to make sure that the city is not adversely affected if the federal government is shutdown in the near future.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is offering legislation, in the form of an amendment that would allow the city to spend its local funds for the remainder of the fiscal year, avoiding the possibility of a District government shutdown if the Congress fails to pass an appropriations bill by March 18, which would shutdown the federal government.

"We are hopeful that my amendment will take the D.C. government out of this congressional dispute, whenever and however it ends," Norton, 73, said.

"It should be unthinkable for the federal government to harm the fragile economy of a local jurisdiction for any reason. Count this congressional fight as just one more reason that the District needs to have autonomy over its local budget."

The threat of the shutdown is the latest battle that Norton and the District's political leadership are waging with the Re-publican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives over the spending priorities of the city. The U.S. Congress must ap-prove the District's budget, even though city taxpayers fund it.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said that his city should not shutdown because political leaders on the federal level cannot come together to enact a budget.

"We need a continuing resolution from the U.S. Congress to make sure that the District does not close down," Gray, 68, said. "It is not right that the residents of the District should suffer this way. We are treated like an agency of the federal government and that is not right."

Gray said that other large cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and New York City do not have to submit their budgets to the federal government or even their state governments for approval.

Norton said that she is sure that most of her colleagues on Capitol Hill, even Republicans, would not want the nation's capital to close because of their inability to pass a budget.

"We are sure that there is no congressional intention to close down the District's local government because of congressional disagreement over the federal budget," she said.

"In fact, most members are completely unaware that the District would have to close if the federal government closes."

A federal government shutdown would have a profound effect on the District. The shutdown of 1995, which lasted five days in November of that year, temporarily closed libraries, affected road repairs and caused the furlough of city workers such as health providers and building inspectors.

The shutdown in 1996 did not affect the city because Norton managed to get the U.S. Congress to exempt the District.

A federal government shutdown would affect some city services that get federal assistance such as the court system and programs that include the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency that work with ex-offenders. The real backlash would be economic, with national parks and museums in the city closed, delays in processing passports and veterans claims, and federal contractors not being paid.

The level of direct federal government support that the District receives is small. Norton pointed out that the District received annual payments for the services that the federal government used in the city and the fact that federal land cannot be taxed.

That arrangement changed when the D.C. control board was created to straighten out the city's chaotic finances, Norton said.

"In exchange for the federal payment, we gave up paying for the District's court system, the prison and most of the city's Medicaid management," she said. "That was a good deal at the time because those were expensive for the District to maintain at the time."

Norton said, "This crisis is why we need budget autonomy."

"We would not have to deal with this if the city could manage its own finances," she said.

The House passed a budget last month that would have cut $60 billion in federal programs and entitlements. The District would have to deal with a reduction of $80 million in federal funding, a prospect that Gray finds unsettling considering that the city itself has a projected deficit up to $600 million.

"We already have revised our budget by hundreds of millions of dollars and face even more severe challenges as we look to fiscal year 2012," Gray said.
Gray said that the elimination of funding for the Corporation for National Service, which manages AmeriCorps and Serve D.C., at the level of $22 million is "not right." He also said that the House budget could impact programs such as school reform, funding for HIV/AIDS and needle exchange.

District activists are so outraged by the House budget that activists who represent DC Vote, an organization that supports greater political empowerment for D.C. residents, picketed the home of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thu. Feb. 17. DC Vote leaders did not like provisions that would have stripped District funding of HIV/AIDS programs and abortions for low-income women.

DC Vote held a "Direct Action on Capitol Hill" event on the U.S. Senate side on Wed., March 2.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) served as the city's mayor when the 1995-1996 federal government shut-downs took place. Barry, 74, said that the shutdown was a power play instituted by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich to put a check on the Clinton administration.

"I don't think it is going to happen but if it does, it will have a ripple effect around the world," he said.

Norton agrees with Barry's point about a potential District shutdown's impact.

"D.C. residents are not alone in relying on vital District services," she said. "Federal officials, including the president, federal buildings, foreign embassies and dignitaries, and businesses rely daily on the city's services, as well."