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When President Bill Clinton rushed out his D.C. rescue plan just before his second inauguration in January, District leaders stumbled over one another to praise the proposal that would put costly city programs back under federal control. All that was needed was for the various players to sign off on a memorandum of understanding, and the president’s plan would clear Congress by Easteror so some on Capitol Hill and in the White House miscalculated at the time.
But now, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) has become the memorandum from hell. The D.C. financial rescue plan is ensnared in next year’s U.S. Senate race in Virginia, the renewed push by U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) to get Lorton prison out of Virginia, and the aim of the federal Bureau of Prisons to build a state-of-the-art East Coast federal pen on the Lorton site.
That’s not all. After examining the fine print and running some calculations, the city’s elected leaders have tempered their initial zeal for the rescue plan. D.C. councilmembers and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s administration are still bogged down in negotiations with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) over salvaging the city’s annual federal payment and maintaining local control over D.C. courts and criminals. Last weekend, OMB officials seemed ready to call the whole thing off.
They said they were tired of negotiating with councilmembers and warned that the president’s plan could expire unless local officials showed some flexibility, and soon. The warning led to face-to-face negotiations between OMB and the council this Tuesday, the first such meeting in weeks. During the three-hour session, the two sides bickered over everything from the financial control board’s life expectancy to eminent domain.
Sure, Clinton and OMB Director Franklin Raines may have figured out how to handle House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, but they were unprepared for the puffed-up potentates on the 13-member D.C. Council and at 1 Judiciary Square.
Once again, well-meaning outsiders have fallen prey to the time-tested tactic of local officials: smile sweetly when someone comes bearing gifts with unwanted strings attached, drag the unsuspecting benefactor into the swamp of D.C. politics, and wear him out with the hope he will eventually go away and leave behind the goodies.
LL wonders why Raines, an official in the first Barry administration, was so ill-prepared to deal with the D.C. quagmire.
“As much as he knows about this town, he doesn’t know how it operates politically,” observes a staffer at the financial control board.
Raines appears particularly peeved at the control board. Just take a peek at his curt April 22 letter to board Chairman Andrew Brimmer rejecting the board’s $52.4-million school-repair plan. The request, Raines bluntly informed Brimmer, was inconsistent with the president’s plan.
“The President’s plan represents the District’s best hope for longterm financial health, and I believe we should focus on securing the congressional support that will assure its enactment,” Raines tutored the septuagenarian control board chairman.
The plan offers to relieve the financially strapped D.C. government of costly functions like courts, prisons, and the current pension system. Under the Clinton proposal, the federal government would also pick up a greater share of the city’s exploding Medicaid program. In return, the city would give up its annual $660-million federal payment, in part to make the president’s plan more palatable to conservatives on Capitol Hill.
The White House strategy was to isolate expected opposition from congressional Republicans by securing quick backing from the control board, the mayor, and the council. So far, none of the key players has signed on to the MOU, leaving the White House strategy in tatters. The control board has refused to endorse the plan because it will have to evaluate whatever plan eventually passes Congress and wants to maintain its impartiality.
Acting council chair Charlene Drew Jarvis warned that the District shouldn’t give up its 175-year-old federal payment so easilya word of caution that was seconded by the control board and Wall Street investment firms. Brimmer told a congressional hearing in February that without the federal payment the city’s cash flow would slow to a trickle, or dry up altogether. The White House has reluctantly agreed to leave the final decision on the federal payment to Congress.
Councilmembers bristle at suggestions that they are dragging their feet. Jarvis, who seems to smell the White House rose garden from her office in the District Building, blames delays on the council’s work on next year’s budget and “the loss of Chairman Clarke.” She still hopes to sign the MOU before she has to relinquish the chairman’s gavel next Tuesday.
Councilmembers also object to turning the city’s judicial system over to the feds, a move that could bring D.C. prisoners under the tougher federal sentencing guidelines and could restore sodomy laws that gay activists fought long and hard to overturn.
“If our criminal system is completely controlled by Congress, they can do whatever they want,” warns council Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Evans.
Davis, chair of the House D.C. subcommittee, has teamed up with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency to craft a compromise creating a D.C. Corrections Authority funded by the feds but controlled by local officials. The compromise also achieves Davis’ goal of closing Lorton and getting District prisoners out of Northern Virginia.
Barry and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton enthusiastically embraced the Clinton plan even before the ink had dried on it Jan. 14. Barry, boasting that he had made a strikingly similar proposal to Congress upon his return to the mayor’s office two years ago, welcomed the Clinton plan but said it didn’t go far enough.
Hizzoner, who once viewed the District as a state capable of governing itself, wanted to give away more of the state store and asked Clinton to pile the city’s mental health care into the federal wheelbarrow. Barry has since taken off the pom-poms and has begun echoing misgivings voiced by skeptical District activists.
Norton immediately hailed the White House plan as “a giant leap forward for home rule.” With the end of the federal payment, she and others claimed Congress would no longer need to review the city’s budget each year and heralded the end of nettlesome congressional interference in city affairs.
Just why anyone thinks Congress would drop its oversight just when the federal government is assuming a greater role in local affairs is beyond LL.
Although Norton, too, has toned down her rhetoric on the Clinton plan, her ardor for Raines hasn’t cooled. Norton can’t seem to cram enough flattering phrases into one interview when talking about Raines’ role in trying to bring the Clinton rescue plan to fruition.
“He may be the most thoughtful person ever to consider D.C. issues,” she gushed this week. “I have to tell you, he is much too valuable a person to alienate, especially since he is very long-suffering, and has been wonderfully flexible throughout.”
Norton attributes last weekend’s impasse to battle fatigue within OMB, which is also directing Clinton’s federal budget battles with the Republican-controlled Congress.
She also has some kind words for the council, sort of, despite its ambivalence on the Clinton plan.
“The council, for the most part, has behaved quite grown-up on this,” says Norton. “They have not demagogued this issue; at least, most of them have not.”
That certainly sounds like damning with faint praise.
Some councilmembers look up the street when asked to account for the critical condition of the rescue plan.
“I think Barry bears a lot of responsibility here. He added to the confusion,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, chair of the council’s Finance and Revenue Committee. Smith thinks Barry was so eager to get out from under the “demeaning” congressional review process that he signed on to the Clinton plan without analyzing its impact on the District.
This is the same excuse some Barry supporters gave to explain away Hizzoner’s drug use during the 1980s. They claimed he turned to substances to deal with the humiliation of kowtowing to Congress. LL wonders how many times the Barry camp can go to the well to douse the mayor’s missteps.
With the impasse between the city and the White House threatening to scuttle the Clinton rescue plan, Norton this week implored the council to put off a vote on its own version of the MOU. That version calls for continuation of the federal payment in its present form and includes language deploring the city’s underrepresentation in Congress. “I say take that out,” Norton adamantly advises.
“The last thing I need is some needless polarization,” she says.
She believes the council is trying to insert deal-breaking language into the MOU because councilmembers don’t understand “all the nuances.” For instance, she insists that the federal payment will survive on Capitol Hill because Davis and other suburban members of Congress fear that its elimination will strengthen arguments for a commuter tax.
Norton offered to debrief the second greatest deliberative body in the nation’s capital on the finer points of the Clinton planan offer declined by Jarvis.
Some city officials are still smarting over an April 22 closed-door session in which Norton went into her “wild woman” routine to pressure them into signing the MOU as Raines had drafted it.
Barry attempted to inject a bit of levity into the meeting, to no avail, by jokingly telling Norton, “I’m not authorizing myself to sign it.”
“She was telling us, ‘Just sign it, and I’m going to take care of it all for you up here on the Hill,’” recalls one participant. “I get nervous when I hear that. I’m just not sure where Eleanor fits into this whole thing.”
Some feel that Norton promised Raines and the White House that she could deliver District leaders on the president’s plan, and now she’s under pressure to make good on that promise.
But the stakes are even higher for Davis. His hopes of a promotion to the U.S. Senate ride on his ability to shut down Lorton and hand the land back over to Virginia. That won’t be easy. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and the federal Bureau of Prisons, initially cool to the president’s D.C. rescue plan, now see it as an opportunity to build a new maximum-security prison on the Lorton site to house both hard-core federal felons and D.C. prisoners.
If Davis finally delivers on closing Lorton, a goal long sought by Northern Virginia officials, he could well move to the north side of the Capitol in 1998. If he fails, he may have to be content with his post as House D.C. subcommittee chairman-for-life.
WARD 6 WARNING
The victory by Sharon Ambrose in Tuesday’s Ward 6 D.C. Council special election was so convincing that it may scare off serious challengers when she has to run for a full term next year. Ambrose, the only woman on the ballot, captured 25 percent of the vote in a 12-person race to serve the remaining 20 months of the current Ward 6 term, which Harold Brazil vacated in January for an at-large seat.
Breakaway Catholic priest George Stallings Jr. finished a distant secondwith 18 percent of the voteeven though Barry mounted a major push on his behalf Tuesday.
The election results bore even more bad news for Hizzoner. Ambrose’s margin of victory was supplied by votersparticularly Republicansin the predominantly white areas of Capitol Hill. Voters in predominantly black precincts, which comprise 70 percent of the Ward 6 electorate, stayed home.
Third-place finisher Howard Croft said black voters in the city don’t think it matters who gets elected to local office, since the control board and the Congress are calling the shots. (People who were surprised by LL’s endorsement of Croft called to point out that LL’s wife made a $250 contribution to Croft’s campaign. In LL’s defense, it should be said that while she may be in charge of most of the important things at LL’s house, endorsements are not among them.) And a Barry aide concedes that the mayor’s record of unmet expectations has convinced them it’s futile to put faith in anything a politician says on the stump these days.
If Barry fails to motivate his black constituency, he could fall prey in 1998 to At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who, like Ambrose, appeals to whites and Republicans. CP
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