Living in DC During the Government Shutdown

16 January, 2019

No city experiences a government shutdown like Washington, DC.

In addition to the economic effect, a suspension of government operations affects Washington on a cultural and recreational level. It influences almost everyone, from trash collectors to young parents and even those hoping to get married.

The United States Congress and President Donald Trump have not been able to reach agreement on a spending plan. On December 22, about one-fourth of federal agencies had no money left and were forced to close.

Trump wants to Congress to approve $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. He says this would help strengthen national security. Democratic Party leaders oppose his spending request and the idea of a border wall.

The local District of Columbia (DC) government has continued operations without a federal budget in place as Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser had promised.

The economic situation is not good. Some studies estimate that the federal government directly employs more than 364,000 people in and around Washington, DC. This includes northern Virginia and southern Maryland. The district alone contains more than 102,000 jobs in government agencies that have no money to finance operations.

Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue compared the shutdown to the main factory closing in a small industrial town. He noted that the closure has affected service industries like restaurants, food trucks and taxis.

"What keeps us up at night is not the work we know we have to do in weeks one and two," Donahue said. It is the unpredictable effects of weeks four and five and onward, he said, with the possibility for mass restaurant closures or federal workers missing payments on housing or car loans.

Public health concerns

Most immediately, the shutdown created a public health problem. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) oversees many parts of DC, from the world famous National Mall to green spaces like Dupont Circle and even neighborhood parks.

Washington waste collection crews now empty waste containers at the city's more than 120 separate NPS sites -- three times a day in the case of the containers at the National Mall. That service costs at least $54,000 a week.

Donahue said there is an unofficial agreement dating back to earlier shutdowns that the local government will be repaid when the federal government reopens.

The park service recently announced it would use other money to restart its own trash collection at some of the Washington sites.

For years, Washington has had a tortured relationship with the federal government, which can change or block any local law. Now, city officials seemingly have the chance to note the irony of the shutdown. They often claim they are treated by Congress as if they are unable to govern the city; now they are taking over and covering for the central government.

"When the federal government shuts down, we step up," Bowser said during a January 4 press conference.

Effect on parents and children

The shutdown also affects the 700,000 people who call Washington, DC home. The Smithsonian Institution's many museums, including the National Zoo, closed their doors about a week into the shutdown. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has severely cut back its hours of operation.

On a recent rainy weekend, parents and children gathered outside the Bloombars cultural center in Washington's Columbia Heights neighborhood. They formed a line, stretching halfway up the street, for the usual Saturday morning children's drumming class. The crowd was three times larger than the normal size.

The reason: parents searching for something to occupy their children in a city where more than 10 free museums and the zoo have been closed.

A volunteer hands out utensils at Chef Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen while also serving free meals to workers effected by the government shutdown in Washington January 16, 2019.
A volunteer hands out utensils at Chef Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen while also serving free meals to workers effected by the government shutdown in Washington January 16, 2019.

"It happens every time," laughed BloomBars founder John Chambers, who recalls a similar increase during the 2013 shutdown, which lasted 16 days.

The district is filled with shutdown specials -- offering federal employees everything from food and drinks to live theater and medical marijuana at low or no cost to them.

Another effect of the shutdown is the closure of the DC office that registers marriages.

Bowser told The Associated Press that even she was surprised to learn that people could not get marriage licenses because Congress pays for the local court system.

Bowser quickly reached out to allies on the Council of the District of Columbia to pass emergency legislation called the Let Our Vows Endure (LOVE) act. The measure gives her administration the right to approve marriage licenses.

At a recent event to sign the act into law, Bowser said, "Just so my team knows, we're probably going to want to keep that power."

Nobody laughed and she did not seem to be joking.

I'm George Grow. And I'm Anna Mateo.

Ashraf Khalil wrote this story for the Associated Press. George Grow adapted his report for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

shutdown – n. a closure of a factory or system

irony – n. a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected

museumn. a building where objects of artistic, historical or scientific interest are kept

zoo – n. an establishment with a collection of wild animals

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.