THE BUDGET DEAL struck by lawmakers in the United States to avoid a government shutdown was greeted by some with relief, but it has one city already reeling: the capital itself.
City officials say Washington was used as a pawn in last week’s budget bargaining, with new restrictions part of the price of a deal.
Angry that Congress appears ready to take away autonomy granted to the city in the last several years, Mayor Vincent Gray and six Council members including the chairman were among 41 people arrested Monday outside the Capitol while protesting the changes that might be inevitable. Seven hours later, they were released from jail.
“We needed to make a statement,” Gray said after his release.
He said protesters’ shoelaces, ties and belts were removed while they were in jail. The district restrictions that were part of the budget deal reached Friday were “completely unacceptable,” Gray said.
The city will likely be unable to spend its own tax dollars on abortions for low-income women. It may also be banned from spending city money on needle exchange programs believed vital to curbing the spread of HIV in the district, where the disease is considered an epidemic. Also back: a school voucher program favoured by Republicans.
The news is considered a setback for a city that is unique in that it has a city government but its budget and laws are overseen by Congress. It had enjoyed more freedom in the past four years when both the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats, the party traditionally more friendly to pleas of autonomy from the heavily Democratic city.
When Republicans took control of the House in January, the city readied for changes. Still, city leaders said they are outraged that Washington appears to have been used as a bargaining chip.
“If this isn’t taxation without representation, I don’t know what is,” the mayor said before being arrested.
He and Council members, dressed in business attire, sat down in the street outside a Senate office building. US Capitol Police arrested them, cuffing their hands behind them with plastic loops, and loaded them into police wagons to cheers from the crowd.
They were cited for blocking the street with an unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor that can be resolved by paying a $50 fine.
Gray said after he was released that he was proud to be part of the demonstration and would continue to fight the restrictions, but wasn’t specific.
Gray became the second DC mayor to go to jail while advocating for home rule. Sharon Pratt Kelly was arrested during a statehood protest in August 1993. Gray also was a council member before becoming mayor, so he is familiar with the home-rule fight.
Ilir Zherka, the executive director of DC Vote, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for more independence for the district, said his group doesn’t intend to let the budget pass this week without a fight.
“We’re not going to accept that they decided to throw the District of Columbia under the bus,” Zherka said.