SHUTDOWN: A Reminder of the Federal City’s Lack of Autonomy

While national monuments, museums and federal offices remained shuttered due to the budget stalemate in Congress, officials in Washington D.C.’s not-so-autonomous city government struck a defiant tone.

Even though the District’s budget is ultimately passed by Congress, Mayor Vincent Gray and the DC Council made clear that the city government would remain open during the federal shutdown.

“Unless somebody takes me out in handcuffs, I’m not shutting anything down,” Gray told the Washington Post.

Meanwhile Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting U.S. Representative, urged lawmakers on the Hill to pass a bill allowing the city to tap its own tax dollars during the federal shutdown. A temporary funding measure was passed Oct. 3 and is now waiting for approval by the Senate and the President.

“Congress has no right to leave our localbudget sticking up like a sore thumb among federal appropriations,” she said on the House floor Oct. 1, reminding federal lawmakers the dollars are “our money, not yours.”

Norton was actually supposed to be cutting the ribbon at her new NoMa office’s opening ceremony that day, but her day-job on Capitol Hill caught up with her. Robin Eve Jasper, President of NoMa BID and co-host of the event, excused the congresswoman’s absence nicely when she told the party guests “Ms. Norton is doing what she does best,” which is trying to defend District rights as a non-voting member of Congress.

In spite of the proud defiance of city officials, the federal shutdown is having a local impact.

At D.C. Safe, an independent nonprofit that helps domestic violence victims, a sudden lack of federal funding is threatening the program’s emergency shelter and counseling services.

Executive Director Natalia Otero said Oct 7 that the organization needed to raise $19,000 by the end of the week to keep its doors open. She said that 17 families are currently being served in the organization’s shelter and that others are being helped by caseworkers operating in the D.C. Superior Court House and in other locations around the city.

“The food cards for victims have also been suspended,” she added, noting that the cards were paid for through a national crime victim compensation program established to assist victims of violent crimes.

At the same time, potential homebuyers braced for delays in getting approvals for their mortgages, due to the lack of paperwork from federal agencies, the Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, District residents went on struggling quietly with the general uncertainty the shutdown has created. Some work for small businesses that depend on the steady flow of federal workers for their revenues. Others live near federal properties that are becoming unkempt. (Mayor Gray ordered District workers to step in and clean up refuse around the national Mall to prevent the spread of vermin.)

City residents with federal jobs have been either forced to remain home, unncertain when or if they will next be paid or – if they are regarded as “essential” – forced go to work but with pay suspended.

At the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, some furloughed workers found a refuge from the uncertainty and stress. Employees of all stripes gathered on one recent afternoon in the synagogue’s fourth-floor community room to chat, watch “The West Wing” on a large screen, snack on “GOP Chips” and “RIP Panda-Cam crackers” play ping pong using paddles decorated with the faces of Congressional leaders, and distract themselves from the fact that their fate rested with those same lawmakers.

“I heard from a friend that the place makesitself open for people that have been furloughed,” said Ken Lemberg, a furloughed worker from the Department of Labor who has become a regular at the Sixth & I “Shutdown Central. “It was really convenient.”

And even more than usual, the tourists are left to puzzle over the strangeness they find in Washington, D.C. .

A physician from India, Dr. Ramji Rao said he could not understand how a debate over healthcare reform could bring the government of the United States to a standstill.

The tourist would have loved to see the Smithsonian museums, but the shutdown forced him to change plans.

“It’s a huge disappointment. I did not expect this in America,” he said, adding: “There has to be consensus.”

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