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District officials have been warned that bucking requirements to suspend nonessential services if the federal government shuts down could result in arrests or hefty fines, but prospects of federal prosecution or a punishment from Capitol Hill appear slim.
“The reality of how so-called shutdowns work are that, retroactively, we pay every federal employee, including the ones that stay home. So from a practical standpoint in these short-term shutdowns, there is no money being saved by sending people home,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “I rather doubt that Congress would take punitive actions against the District of Columbia for keeping their personnel on.”
As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa would likely take the lead on investigating any questionably legal activity by the District.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sympathized with the District and vowed to keep working on a legislative solution, with no mention of penal action.
“It is understandable that Mayor [Vincent] Gray and other District officials want to do everything they can to keep their city running,” Carper said in a statement. “I hope their efforts will be moot because we in Congress can come to a compromise and avoid a needless federal shutdown or, at a bare minimum, that we find a way to allow the District to continue to spend its local tax dollars in the event of a shutdown.”
Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the majority on the House Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that there had been “no discussion” among appropriators about Gray’s intent to maintain regular operations in the event that no spending deal is reached by Sept. 30. Hing said the committee is “not making contingency plans for the District because the goal is not to shut down.”
D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan warned of both congressional and criminal penalties when Gray and members of the D.C. Council began tossing back and forth plans to spend the money they’ve budgeted for fiscal 2014, which begins on Oct. 1, even if Congress hasn’t approved of their appropriation.
Aware of possible dangers, Gray sent the Office of Management and Budget, which is handling preparations for a shutdown, a letter notifying it that he intends to designate the entire District government as essential.
The District of Columbia’s budget for locally raised funds, unlike that of other localities, must be appropriated by Congress. Without approval, schools, police and fire departments stay open, but other public services including libraries, street sweeping and trash collection are cut back.