Lack of Consensus Among District Advocates as D.C. Government Shutdown Looms

Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:40pm

Local activists worry that the inclusion of language to defund Obamacare in the continuing resolution endorsed Friday by the House makes it increasingly likely that D.C. will be caught in a government shutdown after Sept. 30, but there’s no clear consensus on how to alleviate the threat.

As the clocked ticked down to a House vote on the spending deal Friday morning, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., warned her colleagues that “the only thing worse than closing down the United States government is closing down an innocent bystander without a dime in this fight.”

Norton is pushing for leaders in the House and Senate to approve a bill that would authorize the District, beginning in fiscal 2014, to continue spending local funds in the event of a government shutdown.

Without those funds, Norton said basic municipal services would shut down and the District could be forced to default on its financial agreements.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the D.C.-focused House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is hoping he can muster Democratic support for his own budget autonomy proposal as a solution to the looming threat.

Introduced in late July and quickly approved by committee in a voice vote, it lets the District set its own fiscal calendar and spend locally raised tax dollars without first getting congressional permission, but it would also subject D.C.’s budget to policy riders. Republicans have routinely added restrictions on needle exchanges and spending on abortion to the city’s spending bill.

“It’s limited; it’s not full budget autonomy, but it does allow in the case of a shutdown clearly for the District to spend their own funds and it also allows for them to make [plans] that could allow them to plan a whole school year around a different fiscal year,” Issa said Friday.

Issa told CQ Roll Call he does not believe he has enough support among Democrats — including Norton and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer — to bring his proposal to the floor.

Norton, who also sits on the Oversight panel, said in July that her final backing is “conditioned on an agreement yet to be reached on the final language of the bill,” signaling that policy riders could be an issue.

If Democrats won’t come on board, Issa suggested a stop-gap measure could be another solution for the District.

Earlier this week, Norton tried that approach with an amendment to the continuing resolution that would have allowed D.C. to spend its local funds for all of fiscal 2014, but it was rejected Wednesday by the Rules Committee.

The bill Norton is now pushing would strike a deal similar to the one she worked out with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., which allowed the city’s government to keep operating during the federal government shutdown from late 1995 to early 1996.

Norton sent a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asking for support.

“I do not believe any member wants to shut down the D.C. government and bring a large, complicated city to its knees because of a purely federal matter,” she wrote, noting that Issa’s bill and budget autonomy language in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s version of a D.C. spending proved the notion has bicameral, bipartisan support.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who has championed D.C. statehood, believes the effect of a federal government shutdown on the District would be “swift and severe.”

“Shutting down the government is never a good option, but in the event of a shutdown, Congress should keep the District’s government open by allowing it to access its own funding and resources,” Carper said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “The residents and business owners of the District shouldn’t have to go without day-to-day necessities just because Congress can’t come to an agreement.”

Carper said he is working closely with Norton and his colleagues to address the situation.

“At the end of the day, a government shutdown isn’t a long-term or a short-term solution to our nation’s fiscal challenges,” he said. “I know one can be avoided if we all remember the two C’s — communication and compromise. I’m hopeful my colleagues and I can come together to find a compromise that averts an unnecessary shutdown.”

Without agreement on a funding measure or any D.C.-focused solution, a shutdown would occur on Sept. 30 if a continuing resolution is not adopted by both chambers.