Each year, Congress goes out of its way to remind the District of its colonial status.
Seven years ago, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby forced the city to hold a referendum on the death penalty following the Capitol Hill murder of one of his aides. Last year, Georgia Republican Rep. Robert Barr decided that District residents couldn’t be trusted to decide their own drug policy, so he enjoined the city from counting the results of its medical-marijuana ballot initiative. That same year, Rep. Todd Tiahrt also forbade the city to spend its own tax dollars on needle-exchange programs, those nefarious promoters of illicit heroin use.
Lest the Hill’s colonialist tradition lapse in 1999, Tiahrt is cooking up a meddlesome little rider for this year’s D.C. budget cycle. The Kansas Republican is still fuming over revelations last November that the District had funded more than 700 abortions in violation of federal law in 1997 and 1998.
So he wants the District to give the money back. “That’s one of the options we’re exploring,” Tiahrt told LL through a spokesperson. “We’re working with [D.C. appropriations subcommittee Chairman Ernest Istook], and once we get that worked out, we’ll be sure to let everyone know.”
Surfing on a $400-million-plus surplus from fiscal year 1998, the District would have little problem forfeiting the $202,000 that it spent on the abortions. However, the city’s treasurer might have some trouble following through on Tiahrt’s plan to force D.C. to “pay back” the money. The funds, after all, come from local taxes, not from federal grants.
Who, then, should get the check? D.C. taxpayers? The Christian Coalition? It’s a question that won’t inspire any moderation from Tiahrt. “We disagree with that fiscal hairsplitting,” says Tiahrt spokesperson Dave Hanna, who still doesn’t explain exactly who the recipient of the payback would be. “That is always their argument. Our contention is that all of those dollars have federal oversight.”
And how. Barring D.C. from spending its own money on abortions is a constant of GOP micromanagement of the federal city. Ronald Reagan gleefully signed the ban into law in 1988; his successor, George Bush, vetoed District budgets that included subsidized abortions. After a two-year reprieve while Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolutionaries re-introduced the ban in September 1995, when Congress barred the city from spending a cent—regardless of whether it derived from federal or local appropriations—to pay for abortions. The prohibition has survived in every D.C. appropriations package since.
When a control board staffer late last October discovered that D.C. had been violating the mandate, Tiahrt and Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt issued their boilerplate reaction—”We are outraged”—and called upon U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis to investigate.
Such an investigation could occur only in the District. Authorities in places like Kansas and Alabama can spend locally collected revenues on whatever they like—be it abortions, flag-burning workshops, or Eugene V. Debs Heritage Day celebrations. D.C. has no such prerogatives. (Acting on a finding by former Inspector General E. Barrett Prettyman that no criminal conduct had taken place in funding the abortions, Lewis declined to investigate the matter.)
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says that Tiahrt is wrongly rapping the new regime for its predecessors’ improper spending. “It’s unfair to impute the sins of one administration onto a new one, says Norton, who pledged to arrange further consultations with Tiahrt on the matter.
Coping with Congress’ annual intrusions follows a predictable cycle for D.C.’s elected leaders. In his early years atop the District government, for example, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. drew on Congressional good will, playing conciliatory in the battle for federal resources and local autonomy. As the mayor’s misdeeds proliferated—and Congress’ arrogance reached new extremes—Hizzoner reprised his confrontational style of the early ’60s, bashing the sponsors of home-rule-impinging dictates. His broadsides at North Carolina lawmakers Charles Taylor and Lauch Faircloth helped keep civic pride afloat during the city’s financial crisis.
Similarly, Sharon Pratt Dixon began her mayoral term as a Congressional favorite, but she was out getting herself arrested in front of the Capitol just a couple years later.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams is still in the early part of his cycle. In fact, Capitol Hill is about the only part of town that’s still observing Williams’ honeymoon period. That’s because Williams has treated the lawmakers there just the way he should have treated local dignitaries like University of the District of Columbia President Julius Nimmons—with deference and respect, that is.
In a Feb. 25 letter to Tiahrt, for starters, Williams trotted out all the requisite ass-smooching lines and inserted a pledge of fealty: “I appreciate your inquiry into the use of federal funds to provide abortion services for indigent District residents. As you are well aware, abortion is a deeply personal decision and a highly fractious issue in our national discourse. We should not let where the funds were apparently used illegally distract us from the real issue that [you] present: that the District of Columbia did not adhere to federal law in the prosecution of its governmental duties,” wrote the mayor.
Perhaps Williams’ diplomacy and standing in Congress will allow him to head off a home rule showdown with Tiahrt over abortion spending. That prospect, though, would be more plausible if the issue were ideologically neutral—like programs for the mentally ill or recreation spending on racquet sports.
Abortion is different. Tiahrt counts himself part of the fundamentalist Republican vanguard pushing for passage of a “Human Life Amendment”—Pat Robertson’s baby—which would outlaw abortion. So while Tiahrt may cut the mayor a break on things like tax cuts and the controversial $150 million reserve, he’ll stand pat on abortion.
“When people like the District of Columbia blatantly violate federal law, and Todd Tiahrt is on that subcommittee, he’s going to take a forceful position on it,” says Hanna. Tiahrt will get a chance to project his force at an upcoming hearing on D.C.’s human services budget, according to Micah Swafford, a spokesperson for Istook.
The result could be the first test of Williams’ home rule mettle. Since Inauguration Day, Williams has downplayed the city’s democracy agenda in favor of calls to improve services and pad D.C.’s financial recovery. The mayor pushed the theme only in preparation for the late-April NATO summit, when he called on his constituents to show the visitors that Washington is a “first-rate city” deserving of all the republic’s perks.
If Tiahrt demands his $202,000 “payback,” Williams may have to demand respect, not just command it.
To judge from the crowd that assembled at the D.C. Council chambers last Wednesday afternoon, nothing significant was afoot in the halls of government. The ubiquitous LL, a couple of local journalists, a control board guy, and, of course, stickler Dorothy Brizill had arrived for a “public roundtable” on the nomination of Valerie Holt to occupy the vacant post of chief financial officer (CFO).
The stakes were indeed low: Everyone present knew that the council lacked the authority to reject Williams’ nomination of Holt to succeed acting CFO Earl Cabbell. The real power, they knew, rested with the control board, which confirmed Holt this week in a predictably tepid public session.
None of that, however, stopped Holt from turning in the most impressive political performance of 1999 in the face of skeptical council questioning.
Take a look at the adversity Holt faced that afternoon. First, the facts: She held leadership positions at the office of the D.C. Controller from 1989 to 1994, a period that spanned the sowing and growing of the city’s infamous fiscal crisis. Itemized screw-ups that bear Holt’s signature include underprojecting the fiscal year 1994 deficit by about $280 million, wrongly categorizing $23 million in Metro expenditures in 1992, and being complicit in the deferral of hundreds of millions in financial obligations—a series of oversights that culminated in the city’s $335 million 1994 deficit. To judge from recent council rhetoric, that kind of record should have had most legislators reaching for the tar and feathers.
Next, the inquisitors. Councilmembers Jack Evans (Ward 2), Kathy Patterson (Ward 3), Jim Graham (Ward 1), and Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6) omitted the de rigueur compliments on the nominee’s experience and credentials and sawed right into the nitty-gritty. Evans opened his interrogation by announcing he had “eight categories of questions.”
Evans’ announcement alone was enough to tire LL, but Holt was ready for every nit that the skeptical councilmembers could pick. Whether the issue was a $1.6 million projected shortfall for the Department of Public Works or the nominee’s power in the controller’s office, Holt provided a numbing, detailed explanation for every alleged misdeed.
Example: Evans pressed Holt on the infamous “fifth quarter” scandal, in which the administration of Mayor Kelly redefined the 1993 property tax year and thereby created an artificial surplus.
Holt: “The controller discussed the matter with his senior staff. We decided that it would be detrimental to our cash position and that it would fund $100 million in services that the city couldn’t sustain. But at the same time it was a good idea to have the tax year and the fiscal year consistent. The controller’s recommendation was to do it over three years, but it all happened in 1992.”
“She was very, very good,” Ambrose later told LL. Patterson complimented Holt for “keeping her composure.”
That’s all the mayor needs in his CFO. The last thing Williams wants in that post is, well, another Williams—that is, an independent thinker out to buck his superiors in pursuit of political glory. If nothing else, Holt’s resume and statements before the council reflect her willingness to play the company woman, providing the answers that the boss wants. Considering the slapdash preparations for Williams’ 2000 budget, that’s a frightening prospect.
Patterson struck the yes-woman theme when asked why Williams had chosen Holt for CFO: “Perhaps he wishes to continue as CFO just as he is continuing as city administrator,” joked the councilmember. After all, Williams knows better than anyone how an adversarial CFO can derail a governing agenda.
And while he’s on a Realpolitik kick, the mayor is also erasing a debt to control board Chair Alice Rivlin, Holt’s key sponsor in officialdom. Rivlin most recently helped Williams by leading the charge against the council’s deep tax-cut proposal—which would have forced him to scuttle banner initiatives like his proposals for youth programs. Now Williams is scratching Rivlin’s back by picking Holt, whose allegiance to the renowned economist goes back a full decade, to when she helped compile the landmark 1991 Rivlin Commission report on D.C. “They work very closely together,” says a control board source.
Rivlin’s fondness for Holt showed up in the control board’s unanimous confirmation, a reminder that the loyalties of board members run to their boss. Councilmembers, who remain accountable to the voters, produced a messier result, knocking down the initiative that would have allowed it to vote on Holt’s credentials. Their trendy good-government rhetoric notwithstanding, it appears that most councilmembers would have voted to approve Holt. But Patterson—who helped scuttle the vote—insists the message is different: “The council failed to confirm Valerie Holt,” she says. The city is still trying to interpret the council’s position.
You know what they say about democracy.
Herewith an apology: LL regrets being unable to fill this space with a killer scoop on the latest political maneuvering on the downtown baseball stadium. Last Wednesday, LL showed up for a meeting of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City on this very topic but was ejected by committee Chair Tersh Boasberg. Before a crowd of more than 100 land-use junkies, Boasberg proclaimed that guest speaker and D.C. Sports Commission member William Hall would speak “more candidly” on the baseball project if LL would take off.
Working through carefully cultivated committee sources, however, LL was able to reconstruct the meeting and unearth a few shockers: (1) The Sports Commission is dedicated to working with the community; (2) America’s pastime must be played in the nation’s capital—beyond the Little League level; (3) Sports Commission members will not work with the community, nor will America’s pastime be played in the nation’s capital, unless they can find a franchise; and 4) Hall is tall.
Let these revelations serve as a lesson to all those groups thinking about kicking LL out of future meetings. CP
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