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EDITORIAL: The essential city

A day without bureaucrats is unthinkable in the District

- - Monday, September 30, 2013

Every Friday afternoon at 5 o'clock, the government shuts down. Just as predictably, it reopens the following Monday morning — unless, of course, it's a federal holiday. Over weekends and holidays, while the government is at rest, the sun also rises on schedule, and the sky neither falls into the street nor turns bright green (like a plate of ham and green eggs).

The mere prospect of a temporary shutdown during budget negotiations makes a bureaucrat's teeth itch. It means paper shufflers branded as "non-essential" would be sent home with the humiliating recognition that their employers in the federal and D.C. bureaucracies consider them, well, expendable. Nobody wants to be an afterthought.

Employees of the District don't have to fear a government shutdown this time, even if all the others do. Mayor Vincent C. Gray says the whole D.C. government is "essential." The District's 30,000 employees — more or less, nobody is quite sure how many — can sigh with relief. Every one of the city's 632,000 residents can sleep well, with the recognition that even if Congress couldn't pass the continuing resolution by midnight Monday the new federal fiscal year would nevertheless dawn on Tuesday morning. Since the District is a federal enclave, its budget tied to the federal appropriations process, it's ordinarily at the mercy of a federal government shutdown.

But these are not ordinary times. Mr. Gray sent the federal Office of Personnel Management his contingency plan for keeping the D.C. government humming even if the U.S. government doesn't hum. "I am writing to inform you," Hizzoner wrote, "that I have determined that all operations of the government of the District of Columbia are 'excepted' activities essential to the protection of public safety, health and property, and therefore will continue to be performed during a lapse in appropriations."

Mr. Gray doesn't distinguish between the importance of policemen and those protecting public safety, health and property in other ways. The city government's website lists 646 agencies and services that these essential employees provide. There's "D.C. summer fun" (though summer is over everywhere else) and the "pay-telephone complaint hotline" (where can a resident even find a pay phone?). There are public-access cable-TV channels and an office for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs. Mr. Gray can't imagine a day without free birth-control pills and devices and free needles for heroin addicts.

All these programs could go dark for a few days without endangering anyone, just as life goes on when they're closed every Saturday and Sunday. But the mayor can't concede what everyone knows, that a lot of things his city does aren't really necessary. Some of them are merely a pain in the neck. This is why a little shutdown every now and then can be useful, because it reassures the public that life goes on when Big Government doesn't.