An aide to a Pennsylvania congressman recently phoned up the mayor’s office in search of some crime statistics. That sounds like a pretty reasonable request, considering that the Constitution mandates Congress to oversee the District and its many problems. Problem was, the aide wanted stats dating back to 1905LL never knew that was a critical turning point in D.C. historyand to compare the 92 years of District crime to stats from 10 other cities. Sure, we’ll fax that right over.
“If we’re not polite, if we’re not efficient, if we’re not fast, then we’re just a bunch of bumbling, stumbling bureaucrats,” lamented a staffer to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
It doesn’t help matters that his boss, an insider when it comes to criminal justice issues, is about as popular on Capitol Hill as Mobutu Sese Seko is in old Zaire.
District officials have long felt abused by members of Congress and their staffs. Out-of-town staffers treat the District government like a federal agency that can be plowed for information when a congressman or senator wants to get on the floor and bash the hapless Barry administration for the pleasure of folks back home.
“When they call, they’re usually looking for dirt,” noted the Barry staffer.
At the moment, the District’s future has become a political football kicked back and forth between the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress. The two parties are scrimmaging over setting the federal budget, reforming welfare, and cutting taxes. And the District pops up as a proving ground for proposals in all three areas.
When Congress created the D.C. financial control board two years ago to revive the bankrupt District, some expected congressional interference in day-to-day affairs to abate. But the mayor’s office reports an increase of congressional calls to D.C. agency heads, requests to the mayor for information, and inquiries from senators and congressman on why their constituents have gotten parking tickets during their visits to the nation’s capital.
Apparently word about the efficiency and cunning of D.C.’s merciless ticket writers hasn’t spread nationwide.
Control board staffers are even grousing about having to respond to endless congressional calls while trying to guide the District government toward viability. Control board members and staff get daily calls from congressional offices seeking information, and receive an average of three letters weekly requiring more detailed written replies, according to a board staffer.
One control board staffer speculated that playing gofer for the Hill has distracted the board from its charter mission. That may be why the board has lost the confidence of District residents, he said. A recent Washington Post poll found that only 46 percent of District residents gave the control board a favorable performance rating.
“We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the things Congress was interested in, and maybe we didn’t spend as much time as we should have on the things the District of Columbia puts first,” admitted a control board staffer.
That is not likely to change, regardless of the control board’s concerns about the Post poll’s findings. Congress comes first in the pecking order.
All four congressional subcommittees that oversee District spending are headed by senators and congressmen who will be seeking re-election in 1998. So the mayor’s office is bracing for even more requests for information to bash the District and delight voters in the home states.
Freshman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has seized upon his governmental affairs subcommittee chairmanship to grab headlines by declaring President Bill Clinton’s rescue plan for the District dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.
Instead of embracing the Clinton rescue plan, Brownback, aka “Sen. Mossback,” wants to make D.C. “that shining city on the Hill”whatever that means. Mostly, it means he wants to use the District as a laboratory for the GOP’s capital-gains tax-cut proposals.
Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) has earned the moniker “Sen. Loincloth” after telling D.C. residents that if they want the full congressional voting rights enjoyed by everyone else in the nation, they should move out of the District. While deriding D.C., Loincloth wants to pump millions more into District schools to prove his commitment to education.
Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) got off to a good start when he made an unprecedented visit to Barry’s office soon after taking the reins of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee early this year. In the past, appropriations subcommittee chairmen, even Democrats, have required mayors to make the trek to their Capitol Hill offices.
But Taylor’s staff has generated many of the requests that have turned control board staffers into glorified Hill interns. “Taylor’s staff is very active,” said a control board staffer. “But there’s a point at which it becomes counterproductive. Once we were created, they were supposed to get the hell out of the way.”
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chair of the House D.C. subcommittee, is a little easier for D.C. officials to figure out. The Fairfax Republican’s greatest desire is to close down Lorton prison and turn the land over to Virginia developersa coup that would propel him into the race for senate or governor over the next four years. Davis’ designs on Lorton fit nicely with Barry’s goal of shifting the costs of incarcerating the District’s prisoners onto the feds.
But Davis, Taylor, Mossback, and Loincloth are merely foot soldiers awaiting marching orders from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees.
“They don’t have any power,” notes a congressional observer. “They hold perfunctory hearings and wait to be told what to do.” That and order up endless reams of data from hard-pressed city staffers.
Barry’s office has implored congressional staffers to refrain from contacting agency heads directly and to funnel all requests through the mayor’s intergovernmental relations staff, but to no avail. Barry wants to centralize requests in order to put his custom spin on all the information that flows from the District government to Congress. He also wants to keep D.C. agency heads from cutting their own deals with congressional leaders.
That’s exactly what happened during this year’s budget tug of war, when D.C. Corrections Director Margaret Moore went around Barry to negotiate a deal with Congress and the control board to restore $23 million to the corrections budget next year. First, he loses contracting authority to the control board, then budgetary powers to the chief financial officer. Now he’s ceding what little turf remains to his agency heads.
The District and Congress have never been able to forge a relationship that worked satisfactorily for both. Former Rep. Charles Diggs Jr., champion of the home rule charter and the first chairman of the House District Committee under home rule, probably had the best idea on how the relationship should work. Diggs thought home rule required more congressional oversight, not less.
Despite entreaties by D.C. leaders in the early days of home rule that Congress should just butt out, Diggs wrote in 1974, “Under home rule, the buck still stops in Congress.” But Diggs’ reign was cut short by a 1978 criminal conviction for taking kickbacks on a salary paid to a staffer.
He was succeeded by Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Ca.), who ushered in what D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton now fondly calls “the Dellums tradition”keeping congressional hands completely off D.C. We all know how that turned out.
Sen. Loincloth and congressional Republicans are not as fond of the Dellums tradition as Norton. Loincloth says the Clinton rescue plan amounts to asking Congress to foot “the bill for past Democratic Congresses that refused to rein in the District.”
The city’s Democratic State Committee (DSC) rarely attracts any attention when it convenes its monthly meetings at 1 Judiciary Square. The committee, after all, often has trouble gathering a quorum and generally churns out a meaningless stack of ceremonial resolutions and proclamations. The committee’s leaders stumble and stutter when asked what the committee has accomplished in its 22-year history.
However, this year the committee, for a change, gets to exercise a function of some consequence in local politicsselecting the next at-large member of the D.C. Council. The at-large seat will become vacant July 22, when its current occupant, acting council chair Linda Cropp, wins the special election to fill the unexpired term of the late council Chairman Dave Clarke.
Cropp’s elevation to the council chair is a lock, since she faces less-than-token opposition from Socialist Workers Party candidate Mary Martin, who would have trouble getting elected to a vacant advisory neighborhood commission seat.
Once Cropp’s at-large seat becomes vacant, the 74-member DSC, the ruling arm of the city’s dominant political party, will choose a replacement to serve until a special election is held in December. DSC wants to conduct the election by secret ballot.
Despite much pleading and hand-wringing by DSC members, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is insisting that such an important decision be made publicly, and that each state committee member’s vote be recorded. But the chickenhearted local party leaders have found a way around holding a roll-call vote to select Cropp’s successor. In a compromise with DNC, District Democrats plan to let committee members cast secret ballots but sign them for later inspection. That way DSC members avoid being held accountable on the spot.
DSC sources expect many of the ballots to bear the name of Arrington Dixon, who served on the council from 1974-82. Apparently all the political talent has fled the city, just like the taxpayers…
Ward 8 hyperactivist Sandra Seegars, who is helping direct a petition drive by disgruntled taxicab drivers to recall Mayor Barry, said she was ready to give up before the Memorial Day weekend. “It was just dragging,” Seegars said Memorial Day, “but this weekend caught us up.”
Recall petitioners encountered a surge of support when collecting signatures of registered voters in Capitol Hill, Georgetown, and Southwest near the waterfront last weekend. Seegars says she won’t disclose the number of signatures collected before July 1. Petitioners have until the end of October to collect some 33,500 valid signatures from D.C. registered voters to force a recall vote on Barry.
Seegars said her goal is to get at least 3,000 every weekend. “We’re on target,” she contends, although the petitioners, who have been collecting signatures in predominantly white areas of the city, have yet to venture into Barry’s strongholds in Wards 1, 4, 5, 7, and 8.
But she said the movement is printing up new T-shirts declaring, “It’s About Time,” which she says describes the reaction they have gotten from supportive voters so far.
Seegars and the cabdrivers are also going to stop referring to their petition drive as an effort to “recall” Barry. “A lot of people don’t know what ‘recall’ means,” she said. “They think we’re trying to bring him back because we need him.”
She said they will substitute “dump” or “remove” for recall…
The plan by Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams to save the city money by assessing D.C. properties once every three years received a setback last week when the council’s Finance and Revenue Committee voted it down. Committee Chairman Frank Smith was the sole supporter of Williams’ proposal.
Civic groups and Wilkes Artis Hedrick and Lane’s lawyers lobbied against the idea of assessing one-third of the city’s residential and commercial properties annually. They argued the change would lead to unfair assessments because properties would not be assessed in the same year under the same economic conditions and real estate market.
But Williams argued that D.C. lacks the budget and the squadron of skilled assessors needed to evaluate properties on an annual basis, as recent fiascoes in the city’s assessments have demonstrated. But Williams’ suggestion that the District punt until it has the wherewithal to do the job right was thrown for a big loss.CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.