Congress Grants D.C. Temporary Spending Authority

Gray and Norton's Persistence Pays Off

Barrington M. Salmon | 10/23/2013, 3 p.m.
The District of Columbia scored a significant but temporary victory last week when the Obama administration and Congress freed up ...
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, accompanied by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and others, makes his case for fiscal autonomy on Capitol Hill during the recent 16-day federal government shutdown. Gray and Norton were able to extract a one-year deal from Congress. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

And since all politics is local, Thies added, few people outside of the District are aware of, or care about the situation because it doesn’t affect them.

Gray used every opportunity to advocate for statehood and autonomy. He appeared before cameras, visited Capitol Hill, confronted one of the Senate’s heavyweights, and encouraged District residents to help push back against having to go hat-in-hand to Congress for permission to use the city’s own money.

Norton, 76, and Gray, 70, said that despite the city having done everything right and by the book – such as having a balanced budget, declining to spend surplus funds, and building $1.5 billion in reserve funds – it was unfairly punished. As a result, city officials were prohibited from using more than $6 billion of city-generated annual funds.

Norton scolded Congressional Democrats and the administration, however, who despite usually being very supportive of the city and its interests had sacrificed the District on the altar of political expediency.

“[They] acted deliberately to ensure that the District of Columbia government, an innocent bystander, was brought into the present folly and held captive,” she fumed.

Norton singled out President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) for spearheading the effort and working to achieve the breakthrough.

She said the shutdown left the District of Columbia government vulnerable, forcing officials to depend exclusively on its previously appropriated contingency reserve fund. Gray said the city had set aside between $200-$300 million to pay its 33,000 employees and take care of a range of other tasks and responsibilities it routinely undertakes.

During a recent interview, Gray took umbrage with being tossed into the midst of the battle between both political parties.

“We feel like we’re pawns in a chess game I don’t believe we should be involved in,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that the District is treated this way when it comes to spending our own money. We’re not part of the federal government. This is the money of the taxpayers of the District of Columbia [and] these are consequences that no other city or state has to face."

A statement released by the Mayor’s Office on Oct.16 following the Senate agreement was understated, with Gray saying he was “relieved and thankful” that city officials wouldn’t have to worry about becoming collateral damage if the federal government shut down again.

“The health, safety, and welfare of 632,000 District residents should never be a bargaining chip in a debate over the federal budget,” he said.

Like Gray, Norton has been unyielding in her attempts to secure full autonomy for the Nation’s Capitol. She has never hesitated to take Congress and the Obama administration to task for not being more vigorous in giving the District full control over its purse strings.

She did the same on Oct. 9 when she, Gray, Issa, members of the D.C. Council, other luminaries and residents gathered at the Senate Swamp near the Capitol to voice their disapproval about the shabby treatment meted out to the city.