WASHINGTON — A looming federal government shutdown could close national parks, halt the processing of visa and passport applications, shut down Smithsonian museums and keep hundreds of thousands of federal workers off the job.
But the city government for the nation's capital insists it will be open for business as usual, an unprecedented move for a city whose leaders continually struggle to assert their independence from congressional oversight.
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray this week declared all government operations essential, meaning all of the roughly 32,000 municipal workers – from trash collectors to teachers to DMV workers – would be expected to report to work. Legislation being circulated by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson would authorize workers to be paid from the district's contingency cash reserve fund, if necessary.
"I have determined that everything the District government does – protecting the health, safety and welfare of our residents and visitors – is essential," Gray said in a statement explaining his decision.
The mayor notified the federal Office of Management and Budget of his plans to keep the government open, but the agency had not responded as of Friday afternoon, said Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. OMB officials did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
"I respect the judgment of the city and hope the Congress will do the same," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in Congress but cannot vote on the House floor.
She added: "I have never second-guessed the city, and I don't think OMB or Congress should second-guess the city on this matter any more than they should second-guess them on how to run the city itself."
The Senate approved legislation Friday to prevent government agencies from closing down next week, the latest step in a fractious budget fight centered on funding for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. But it wasn't clear whether the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-run House would be able to reach a compromise to avert a shutdown that would take effect Tuesday, when the government's new fiscal year begins.
Non-essential D.C. employees were furloughed for several days in November 1995 during a federal government shutdown, though an agreement by congressional leaders spared local workers during a second shutdown the following month. Two years ago, District leaders made plans for a federal shutdown, but that was ultimately averted by a late agreement in Congress.
Gray's stance is unprecedented in D.C. politics and represents the local government's latest act of defiance against Congress, which wields the ultimate authority over the district's budget and laws.
The mayor, who has repeatedly pressed for budget autonomy, was arrested in 2011 for protesting restrictions on how the local government could spend federal funds and has clashed with congressional Republicans over their desire to revive a private school voucher program. Voters last spring approved a referendum allowing the city full budget autonomy, or the ability to spend its local tax dollars without congressional approval under any circumstances. That referendum would take effect Jan. 1, though it could still be challenged in court as unconstitutional.
"We're also making the point that this highlights why budget autonomy is important, and we can't wait until January 1, 2014," Mendelson said in explaining the local government's position.
There is no danger of the D.C. government running out of money in the event of a federal shutdown, Mendelson said.
The contingency fund on which the city would draw holds roughly $144 million, and the district payroll is $98 million for every two-week period, Ribeiro said, meaning that the government should be able to make one payroll period during the shutdown.
Keeping the government open during a shutdown could potentially run afoul of the federal Anti-Deficiency Act – which essentially says money can't be spent unless it's been appropriated by Congress – but district leaders argue that they don't need the approval of Congress or OMB to draw money from their contingency fund. Still, in the event any federal shutdown drags on, the D.C. government would need OMB to sign off on the decision to declare all workers essential.
"I believe that the people focused on this crisis are not interested in the district government, which is another reason why we should have budget autonomy," Mendelson said.