In light of the impending government shutdown, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray and the D.C. Council have seized the opportunity to fight for their city’s autonomy by declaring every District governmental employee an “essential” employee. If the federal government does shutdown, the District will continue to run, business as usual. While Gray’s stand leaves District residents breathing a sigh of relief that their garbage collection will continue, the move stretches the limits of charitable interpretation.
According to Section 1, Article 8 of the Constitution, Congress has the power to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over the district.” The District government falls under federal control, and so under the Antideficiency Act. Congress passed the Antideficiency Act in 1884, the AP reports, in order to gain greater financial control over federal agency spending. However, the legislation was more formal than practical, and “agency chiefs…assumed Congress didn’t want them to turn off the lights and go home….This look-the-the-way system worked for decades.” That is, until Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti interpreted the bill as a ban on governmental work lacking federal funding approval. Although he moderated his interpretation to allow essential government services, such as the military, to continue even without an approved spending bill, his reading has ruled to the present day.
The District is technically under federal control; it exists as the seat of the federal government, independent of any particular state’s jurisdiction. However, the District is not just an amalgamation of governmental buildings: it is also home to 632,323 tax-paying individuals who depend on local services, such as the DMV and garbage collection. These residents voted in April earlier this year to approve a charter amendment securing budget autonomy from Congress; that measure is not set to go into effect until January 1, 2014. In the meantime Mayor Gray has argued that “it is ridiculous that a city of 632,000 people—a city where we have balanced our budget for 18 consecutive years and have a rainy-day fund of well over a billion dollars—cannot spend its residents’ own local tax dollars to provide them the services they’ve paid for without Congressional approval.” Thus, his justification for expanding the word “essential” to cover all District employees.
As a resident of the District, I have a certain sympathy for Gray’s position: I, too, hope that my trash continues to be removed every Wednesday morning. However, redefining the word “essential” in a game of political chicken with the Office of Management and Budget overreaches the District’s current political limits. The contract of our country, for which the District serves as the seat, is that our political proceedings are not intended to rest on the whims of those in whom we have invested governmental authority. We have legal recourse to change laws that we disagree with, and the District did just that by passing the referendum going into effect next year. Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney even suggests that by employing the District’s contingency fund, a stand-off between local and federal authorities might be entirely (legally) circumvented.
Like the Affordable Care Act, D.C.’s local subjection to federal whims may be bad policy. The answer to bad policy, however, is not civil disobedience on a governmental scale. The D.C. Council, though they may want to do so, cannot justly achieve their autonomy by stretching a federal word past its breaking point. Nor can the House Republicans justly attempt to undo one law, Obamacare, by shutting down the entirety of the government. The answer to bad policy is politics, conducted with respect for the rule of law and the integrity of our governing institutions.