Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Hundreds of mayors gathered in D.C. heard House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pitch to end the shutdown. And they floated new ideas for taking matters into their own hands.
A record number of city leaders convened in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday for the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual non-partisan winter meeting. Their original plan had been to focus on discussing the three “I”s that form the council’s agenda this year: infrastructure, innovation, and inclusion. But, like many things, priorities were complicated by the federal government’s partial shutdown, which, at 32 days, has stretched longer than any other in the U.S.’s history.
“We need to move beyond the political impasse,” said Steve Benjamin, President of the USCM and the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, at an opening press conference. “Every day, mayors across the country put aside partisan differences and find common ground on even the most difficult of issues … It’s time for Washington to take a page out of our playbook.”
The mayors heard from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who urged them to support a House-passed “bipartisan, bicameral” package of legislation to reopen the government. But recognizing the likelihood that the shutdown may continue, they also floated their own new ideas for outcomes they could control: protecting their residents from the impact of the shutdown—both in the short-term and in the long-term.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms said her city will now make planning for a future shutdown part of the city's resilience agenda. “We’ve talked about our city being a resilient city,” Lance-Bottoms told CityLab. “So much of that has been focused on, what if there was a natural disaster?” Now, she says, her city is facing “a man-made disaster.” Pelosi alluded to a similar fear: “There’s a serious and justified concern that this president will shut down the government any time he does not get his way legislatively,” she said. “That is why we must hold the line.”
Atlanta’s first priority is getting its international airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International, staffed to capacity, and its Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers paid. “We’re concerned for all federal workers, [but] we do have a Super Bowl coming to Atlanta in just a few weeks,” Lance-Bottoms said at the press conference. The TSA has already flown in additional workers, and the airport has started opening its security lines at 3 a.m. each morning. But on “mass exodus Monday,” the day after Superbowl Sunday, Lance-Bottoms estimates a crowd of 120,000 passing through.
So Atlanta is considering a plan to offer loans to its TSA workers, and expects to announce details imminently. When the solution was first posed last week, it was stymied because of FAA regulations prohibiting the use of federal funds, but Lance-Bottoms now plans to pay for the program with city funds, and the help of corporate partners. Last week, San Jose, California announced a similar plan, offering 500 federal airport workers interest-free loans out of its airport’s $50 million fund.
Washington, D.C. is “in the belly of the beast,” says Mayor Muriel Bowser, with about 80,000 city residents affected by the furlough. On Wednesday, D.C.’s city council voted unanimously to issue a stop on evictions or foreclosures of federal workers and contractors for the rest of the shutdown, and for 30 days thereafter. Landlords can still file motions against these tenants, but judges will deny them.
And at Wednesday’s press conference, Bowser also announced a $9 million temporary loan program administered by the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, which will help D.C. residents who are federal workers and don’t have any forbearance assistance from their mortgage companies make their loans. The agency will provide up to about $3,000 to an estimated 1,000 people, for three months.
But besides supporting federal workers, soon, cities might have to shoulder other social services. As soon as the end of February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will start running out of funding for several several food assistance programs: SNAP and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), says Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy. “So far, the USDA, working with states, has managed to make sure [SNAP and WIC] will be operating through February, and school meals should be fine through March,” she said. “But March will soon be upon us,” and mayors, governors, and other local leaders must be prepared “for what could be, really, a public health crisis.”
Maryland and Wisconsin, for example, pay their benefits out over a longer period of time, meaning February benefits were paid on January 20. “That means that if you’re one of the residents of Maryland or Wisconsin who gets paid on March 20, you’ve got 60 days until your next payment,” said Dean. “For a family that can budget perfectly, who has no financial disruption—which is very unusual—it could work out. But many SNAP participants [already] run out of benefits at the end of 30 days.” By extending to 60 days, families might have to turn to local services and charities for help.
“We would be in big trouble if this hasn’t been resolved by mid-February,” said Bowser.
Already, demand on food pantries has increased, says Paul Soglin, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, because of another ripple effect of the shutdown: Federal employees, and businesses that depend on the economic activity of federal employees, have turned to them while stretched for income. The strain will only be compounded if SNAP and WIC run out. “The disaster we’re facing isn’t coming until the end of February,” he said. “But if you wait until February to put a system in place, it’s not going to work.”
So the city has been investigating how to fund the SNAP and WIC programs itself. The challenge, Soglin says, is twofold: first, freeing up money in the local budget, and second, deploying it in an organized way. “We expect to be reimbursed by the federal government, which means we have to set up a payment system that we will sustain and audit,” he said. Basically, to replace the federally-run system, cities have to redo all the work of setting a local version up.
Soglin is also concerned about delays in grant applications, from law enforcement to public transportation, the long-term ramifications of which could start in 2020 or 2021.
For now, though, cities are focused on easing the local suffering wrought by the federal impasse.
“I received a disturbing message from one of our community service providers who runs a ‘Feed the Hungry’ program,” Lance-Bottoms said. “She is increasingly concerned, because she’s seeing a number of people coming to receive assistance that’s comparable to what she saw in the aftermath of Katrina.”