Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) understands fully Mayor Vincent Gray's decision to keep the District of Columbia government open in the event of a federal government shutdown by using the city's already congressionally appropriated contingency reserve fund, but said it is essential to keep pressing for legislation to free the city from repeated shutdown threats and reliance on contingency reserves, which would be quickly exhausted. If the city's contingency reserve fund runs out, which could occur after approximately two weeks of a shutdown, the full D.C. government could be kept open only by a decision to deem all D.C. government operations essential. Norton's office also announced that over the last couple of days, every Democratic member of Congress who she was able to speak with, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), gladly signed on to her letter urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to pass legislation that would allow the D.C. government to remain open in the event of a federal shutdown. The letter is currently signed by 120 members of Congress, a significant majority of House Democrats, with members still signing on.
Norton said that Mayor Gray's action was carried out in a careful and prudent way, and therefore carries little risk of action from the administration, whose own pending fiscal year 2014 budget includes D.C. shutdown avoidance language. She does not expect punitive action from Congress, although it has taken no action on her shutdown avoidance amendment or bill, she believes, to avoid the impression that a shutdown would occur. She does not believe that the Republican or Democratic leadership or other members of Congress have the desire or intention to shut down the city.
"Mayor Gray, who acted only after consultation with the Council and other major city officials, took steps necessary to protect innocent bystanders -- city residents and employees, and the D.C. economy itself -- from an entirely unrelated federal government shutdown," said Norton. "The District of Columbia has been subjected to treatment as if it was a federal agency instead of an independent jurisdiction, but even federal agencies are given broad discretion in deciding which operations are essential."
The city is already experiencing the effects of a series of federal blows. The sequester continues on top of several years of federal budget cuts. Economically, D.C. is a federal city whose economy is feeling the effects of the furloughs and three years of frozen salaries from its disproportionate number of federal employees. A federal shutdown also would harm tourism, the city's major private sector, because all federal sites would be closed. "Particularly considering the effect of the week-long shutdown of the D.C. government in 1995, the Mayor could not afford to simply stand by and hope for the best," said Norton.
Nevertheless, Norton said that although the city's action is important and protective for now, it is a temporary solution for a shutdown of unknown duration and may last only as long as the city's contingency funds allow, approximately two weeks. The last government shutdown (late 1995 -- early 1996) lasted for 21 days, which is a week longer than the city's currently available contingency reserve fund. Norton was able to work with then-House Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich through multiple shutdowns in 1995-1996 to keep the city open after the first shutdown, but Republican leaders today have been unwilling to take similar action. Norton said that even if the federal shutdown is brief, the city needs and deserves a congressional response that will end the shock and uncertainty of repeated shutdown threats.