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The District’s willy-nilly effort to heal and defend itself over the past year recalls the Zen tale about the three blind men and their encounter with an elephant. According to a popular version, one of the men grabbed the elephant’s trunk and declared it a snake; another took hold of the tail and described it as a rope. The third, who walked into the elephant’s broad side, was absolutely convinced he’d encountered a mountain.

In much the same way, everyone connected to the District seems to be describing a different part of the elephant. Republicans see a bloated bureaucracy; the control board says it’s a combination of expenses and revenues; D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton fingers federal taxes; Shadow Statehood Rep. John Capozzi cites freeloading nonprofits; statehood advocates decry the lack of voting representation in Congress. Most say it’s Mayor Marion Barry. And Barry says it’s about caterpillars, butterflies, metamorphosis, and transformation.

Truth is, the District simply was designed to fail. Its governing structure remains fundamentally flawed; 10 years of mismanagement, corruption, and inept congressional oversight have merely exacerbated the problem. While many elected officials and bureaucrats focus on mismanagement or budget numbers, no one notices that the house was built on sand. The District suffers from a myopic, constrained home rule charter that had outlived its usefulness within a decade of being written. The way the District is set up, Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles couldn’t make it work.

People profoundly underestimate the power of documents to shape and affirm reality in government. Framing documents like the home rule charter essentially predestine and codify the fundamentals of government. When the codification is defective, the results echo and amplify the flaws. If the framers of the United States Constitution had been as inept and shortsighted as the crafters of the District’s home rule charter, the country would have fallen into wholesale anarchy decades ago. Instead, the United States, because of its constitution, is blessed with a functional democratic system that endures. There have been amendments, and the country falls short of many of its basic principles, but it remains a global standard for democracy.

Would that the District were so lucky.

Instead, the District of Columbia—capital of the free world—has been burdened with a 20-year-old document that has turned out to be a road map to extinction. As a result of the charter, the District is saddled with a multibillion-dollar pension bill, crippling tax restrictions, and toothless political representation at every level of government. Just in case that burden weren’t onerous enough, the District is defined variously in the charter as a state, a county, and a city. It is a hybrid of the most unworkable sort: a sheep’s head grafted onto a wolf’s body with the neck of a giraffe; nonfunctional, illogical, and butt-ugly to boot.

But instead of talking about remaking municipal government so it has a chance to function, Congress whispers in the hallways about the inevitability of receivership. Back in the day, there may not have been a Plan capital P to structure the District into failure, but Congress couldn’t have come up with a more sure-fire recipe for disaster if it had tried. District officials were granted just enough rope to hang the city.

It’s time to rewrite the home rule charter.

“Home rule, as we know it, just doesn’t work. And everyone knows it,” says D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who introduced a resolution last fall urging Congress to set up a commission to reassess the city’s home rule charter.

“We could have an infusion of $1 billion, and unless we look at making changes to the structure, we would be in another deficit within five years,” he continues.

Council Chairman David Clarke has yet to bring Chavous’ resolution before the full council. (Clarke refused to be interviewed.) Like many people in a position to do something about the District’s governing structure, he probably thinks this isn’t a great time to raise fundamental issues. Congress has so much loathing for the District that if political and racial realities were different Congress would probably reinstitute a commission to run the place.

Congressional disgust aside, the ongoing fiasco and the two decades of dysfunction that preceded it compel Chavous and others to suggest that the charter has to be addressed to give the District a fighting chance.

“I’m not just talking about the sexy stuff like a commuter tax. It has to be about state functions and the escalating dependent-care population; it has to be about the university and our educational system—those kinds of things,” Chavous says.

Many believe that at a minimum Congress should rework the charter to assume responsibility for state functions, create an elected controller, and consider a shift to a city-manager form of government.

But while Congress and city leadership may be stalling, some private organizations have focused on the flawed home rule charter as the locus of the District’s woes. Last fall, the D.C. Agenda Project, co-chaired by James Gibson and Carol Thompson-Cole, set up its own panel to investigate revisions. And recently, the powerful Federal City Council (which brought you Abe Pollin’s MCI Arena) appointed its own commission to study the issue; former D.C. City Administrator Elijah Rogers was selected chairman of the group. Even Mayor Barry has begun to raise the issue.

During a recent hearing before the House D.C. Subcommittee on Government Reform and Oversight, Barry stated it plain and simple: “The roots of our present situation can be traced to the beginning of limited home rule in 1975.”

Back in 1970, when the District government was invented, something went terribly, terribly wrong.

The roots of the problem go back even further; the trek toward limited home rule actually took shape nearly a decade before. The political and cultural landscape of the District during the civil rights battles of the ’60s reflected dissonant influences and a unique version of powerlessness. The District had vaguely Northern sensibilities, but its soul was Southern—black people in Washington knew Jim Crow, even if he didn’t live right next door. And as residents of the District, they knew the lack of voting rights was an invitation to subjugation.

It wasn’t until 1964 that District residents were able to vote for president of the United States—the result of an amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress and ratified by a majority of the states. Shortly thereafter, in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a mayor and council for the District, which operated much as the old commission form of government had—the power remained with the congressional committee.

Johnson’s actions were informed by the reality that the District was becoming a majority African-American town. At the height of the civil rights movement, the president could not be perceived as withholding yet another set of rights from blacks. One year later, in 1968—the same year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and burning buildings lit the skyline of the nation’s capital—District residents won the right to elect their own school board members.

The fractional victories emboldened home rule advocates, but Congress and the president were clearly engaged in pacifying District residents rather than in enrolling them in shaping their own destinies. The creation of an elected board of education, the appointment of a “local governing” commission, and D.C. residents’ winning the right to vote for president were all part of the piecemeal heritage reflected today in the District’s hopelessly splintered approach to governance.

The crumbs offered to District residents were considered acceptable trade-offs, although they offered no semblance of self-government.

The Board of Trade—then as now—wielded enormous power on Capitol Hill. It was made anxious by the notion of an independent District of Columbia and was convinced the city couldn’t support itself financially. Local business leaders liked the District’s impotence just fine, as did John L. McMillan, a South Carolina Democrat who had monarchlike authority as chairman of the House Committee on the District. McMillan endeared himself to business leaders by corralling the District, prohibiting local tax increases and limiting municipal initiative.

But while the business establishment and its man in Congress turned a deaf ear to pleas for home rule as the ’60s drew to a close, nearly everyone else in the District—including the Washington Post—fought for it vigorously. At least twice bills were introduced to establish home rule, accompanied by intense citizen lobbying. Twice the efforts failed, as McMillan and his boys held public hearings ad nauseam to fig-leaf their desire to keep the District under their direct control.

In 1970, however, during the height of the Nixon administration, the mood began to shift; perhaps the specter of yet more riots created a sense of urgency. On Sept. 22 that year Congress created the Commission on the Organization of the Government of the District of Columbia. It was the work of this 12-member panel that eventually led to the home rule legislation passed in 1973.

But according to American University law professor Jamin Raskin, the commission’s limited approach to what should have been a comprehensive analysis led to hopelessly flawed legislation.

“Its statutory mandate was to recommend ways of reducing expenditures, eliminating duplication and overlapping of services, consolidating services, abolishing services, and eliminating non-essential services,” says Raskin in a letter he wrote to Clarke in support of Chavous’ resolution to revisit home rule. The commission was specifically told not to include in its deliberations “any changes in the basic form of the government for the District.” Essentially, the commission avoided, by mandate, most of the difficult questions that confronted the city then and now. And where the interests of the District might have clashed with the political interests of surrounding jurisdictions, the D.C. government took the hit. The ways and means of District government were designed by people who had no stake in its success and some reason to relish the possibility of failure.

Some District activists recognized right away that the home rule legislation contained the seeds of failure. Sam Smith, writing in a 1973 issue of his publication, the D.C. Gazette, called the home rule charter “crypto-colonial legislation, both letter and intent, and leaves us far short of true self-government. The bill leaves the city judicially, fiscally, and architecturally hostage to Congress and politically unequal to other Americans.”

Smith’s conclusion was prescient. He called the charter “one more inconsistent hybrid compromise, as unworkable as those that preceded it.”

So why did District residents, some of whom had fought for more than a decade for home rule, accept such a shoddy document? Privately, Barry and others involved in the fight intimate that a hollow victory was all that the circumstances allowed, so they took what was there. They were first and foremost civil rights organizers; a hard-knocks school of political activism teaches that when you can’t win a big victory, settle for the little one and keep pushing. It’s a good strategy for social change, but it’s no way to build a solid foundation for government.

Howard Croft, chairman of the Department of Urban Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), played a role in the fight and said that settling out made sense at the time. “Questions surrounding home rule got subverted by the issue of getting the vote in Congress.” Croft and others fully expected that fundamentals could be revisited.

But the fight for genuine self-governance began to splinter off into unproductive tangents—partly by design. One year after Congress created the commission to study reorganizing the city, District residents received the right to elect a nonvoting delegate to Congress. For many years thereafter, the attempt to reshape the District’s government ended up second fiddle to the push for a voting member of Congress. (D.C.’s representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, finally won that right in 1992—she could vote in committee. Two short years later, she lost the right when Republicans took control of Congress.)

In 1972 McMillan, who had been the primary barrier to home rule, was defeated. Michigan’s Charles Diggs took over as chair of the House District subcommittee. And although he was initially reticent about home rule, Diggs helped to get the vote through. By 1973 the legislation was complete, and it was signed in December of that year by President Nixon.

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Four years after home rule first came to the District, residents learned that while they might have finally managed to buy their own house, it was infested with termites. And they neither had the money nor the power to fix it. The District couldn’t elect its own judges and prosecutors; it didn’t have voting representation in Congress; and while it could enact legislation, it didn’t have the last word even when such laws did not affect

the federal government. These were the minor problems.

During the first year of the first term of the District’s second mayor—Marion Barry—the D.C. government learned it had been saddled with a $279-million deficit. Further, the federal government dumped its pension system on the District without giving D.C. the $1.2 billion that should have come with the shipment. (That number has since skyrocketed to $5 billion.) And Congress told the District it couldn’t tax federal property or land owned by foreign governments.

“We never asked, ‘Home rule for whom?’” says Smith. The upshot was a mishmash of freedoms and restrictions that resulted in a government that was neither state nor city, neither independent nor free, but a product and ward of Congress. The District ended up with all the responsibilities of a state and a county but none of the systems or revenue streams that go with them.

Cities and states generally are interdependent. States rely on their cities and/or counties to finance their bureaucracies, and in exchange cities depend on states to distribute communal funds and other resources, while subsidizing services in key areas such as public safety, education, and public works.

States can also serve as white knights when cities are in distress. New Jersey took over the Jersey City schools in 1988 after the district failed to meet statewide standards four years running. Sometimes state intrusion isn’t punitive; states have a clear self-interest in seeing that their biggest cities continue to function. That’s why in 1978, when New York City teetered on the brink of fiscal insolvency, the state stepped in to help the city finance its nearly $1-billion deficit.

Such state-level sources of intervention and assistance are absent in the District, except as reflected in the misdirected oversight provided by Congress. And even when Congress intrudes as it has during the past year, it doesn’t bring a strong commitment to the District and surrounding region. For one thing, Congress will not assume state functions. It is the District, not Congress, that manages the state prison system—Lorton—and its own local jail; Baltimore doesn’t have to run a state prison. The District manages and funds its state higher education system in the form of UDC and a law school; in Virginia, the state provides funding for its public university system. While Rockville covers some costs for Medicaid, the state matches the funding. The District, on the other hand, pays city, county, and state contributions for Medicaid.

The burden of carrying state functions has become a sore spot for Barry, who has repeatedly sought to heighten awareness of the injustice implicit in the arrangement. “No American city pays a matching portion of Medicaid—the District pays 50 percent. No American city supports a prison system for felons,” Barry says. “No American city provides comprehensive mental health care. Cities traditionally do not issue drivers’ permits, auto licenses, or administer Aid to Dependent Children or other welfare programs.”

The District’s budget reflects this state-function affliction.The commingling of city and state skews any real analysis of how much money the District really needs to provide direct municipal services. In fiscal 1994, state and county functions provided by the District accounted for nearly 50 percent of the city’s revised budget, according to documents provided by D.C. City Administrator Michael Rogers’ office. Specifically, $1.3 billion was spent on services that would be provided by the state bureaucracy in other jurisdictions. Another $443 million went to county functions. City services accounted for about $2 billion in the same fiscal year.

Rogers is concerned that too much attention is paid to fiscal issues, preventing a larger and more serious discussion about the structural underpinnings of government. In the eyes of Congress, the fact that the District raises most of its own money and is a city-state with massive responsibilities because of its unique status makes no difference. “Congress continues to treat the District as an agency of the federal government,” Rogers says.

“We are at a critical point in our history,” he continues. “There has to be a continued search for stabilizing forces that are structural, organizational, and political.”

Every kind of fix has been suggested for the District—from a flat tax to a board of education oversight commission to a police commissioner. In the past legislative session, Congress went ahead and simply implemented any old initiative there were votes for.

Take the creation of the quasi-independent chief financial officer and the completely independent inspector general. By establishing these two positions as part of the control board legislation, Congress snatched powers from the mayor and lobbed them onto the new CFO and IG without regard for the political and managerial upheaval that resulted. Last month, Congress further eviscerated the powers of the mayor, giving the CFO power to hire and fire people in his financial cluster. The move may have been intended as a personal swipe at Barry, but it will have a lasting impact on the city’s ability to govern itself. It represents a de facto change in the charter without any analysis of its broader impacts.

“Used to be that people thought of city government structure as you had a weak-mayor or strong-mayor form of government; you had a city-manager form of government, a commission form of government. I think we’re creating a new kind of entity,” says Croft.

“The problem is that we are diffusing power. We’re diffusing it in a way that roles are not clear,” he continues. “All of this is being done ad hoc.”

Everybody has a magic bullet for the District’s woes. Former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp suggested establishing a flat income tax and creating a set of enterprise zones to energize the District. House Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted to make the city “an urban jewel” through a variety of initiatives. Recently, D.C. Delegate Norton has drawn considerable attention to her plan for progressive tax relief.

The Norton plan and other proposals might do short-term wonders; they might stimulate the economy. But the last thing the District needs is to be made more unique; it doesn’t need to complicate its already rare disorder. The focus should be on stabilizing the District as a municipal government while accentuating its status as the nation’s capital city.

Rather than chanting about the current manifestations of District dysfunction, Congress should begin to look at the underlying system producing all the chaos. For instance, the answer to the school system’s slide into decay isn’t the $15 million some Republicans sought to provide for building repair and scholarships. Congress has to look at the board of education’s autonomy, because by any objective standard the board has failed miserably. Countless local governments have elected school boards, but their superintendents report to the executive branch. That kind of adjustment to the school board structure could be part of a rewritten home rule charter.

Assisting the city’s police force doesn’t simply mean throwing in another $15 million, earmarked specifically for public safety—the larger question is whether the local police force should be used to protect the federal enclave. Perhaps in reconsidering the charter Congress could decide to limit the territorial coverage of the Metropolitan Police Department to the city, while the museums, monuments, and the surrounding streets become the domain of the Park and Special Police forces.

Long-range repairs could bring an end to the cycle of quick fixes and recriminations that has marked District affairs for the last decade. But Congress has to do something besides District-bash and play to the grandstand; it has to get in the trenches and work to build a better foundation.

“Congress can’t have it both ways,” says Raskin. “It can’t keep the District of Columbia on a short leash and then not take responsibility for its pathologies.”

The District’s dual role as nation’s capital and home to 500,000 taxpaying residents complicates the task of renovating its government, but it doesn’t make it impossible.

“There has to be a reorganization of the bureaucracy more along municipal and state government precedency,” explains D.C. Agenda Project Co-Chair Gibson. “Something that will help bring accountability to service delivery; at the same time, the arrogant, insular bureaucracy syndrome will be mitigated.”

The superstructure proposed by Gibson could be similar to the National Capital Planning Commission and serve as the state entity that provides funding and oversight. This special state commission might be appointed by both the mayor and the president. Membership could be determined by using current elected officials matched with congressional staff or appointees. The commission could also address regional issues such as funding and planning for Metro, infrastructure issues such as roads and bridges, and economic development, says Gibson.

“The precedent already exists for this in the zoning commission,” he continues. “The mayor has three appointees, and by statute the Architect of the Capitol and the chief planning officer of the National Capital Park System also sit on the commission.”

But creating another layer of bureaucracy for District oversight might cause more damage than good. Instead, Congress could specifically identify itself in the charter as the state institution for the District and assume liability for funding and management of prisons, Medicaid, and welfare.

An appropriately redrawn charter could end the District’s status as a charity case. The federal payment could be recast as funding for state services and not merely be considered a payment in lieu of property taxes. And the feds could also be asked to pay for the right to limit the District’s ability to raise money.

“Where the federal government imposes any restriction on the local government to generate revenue, the federal government ought to compensate the District for that restriction,” Rogers says. Prohibitions on taxing nonprofits as well as special services like police escort would also be part of such a formula. Rogers also says that the building height restrictions imposed on the District have an economic cost that should be paid for.

Charter changes could invigorate the internal structure of government as well. As long as Congress is hellbent on having a powerful, independent CFO, it should provide by charter for an elected controller such as New York City has. “But not with the same powers as the current CFO,” adds Rogers.

Any fundamental reworking of the charter should also include a hard look at a city-manager form of government, says Gibson. Many of the duties currently residing with the mayor could shift to a paid professional manager hired by the District Council. City managers tend to reduce the role of politics in the everyday management of cities and minimize corruption, fraud, and waste.

Last week served as a test case for how the District might operate under a city-manager form of government. While Barry was away on sudden leave, the daily operations of the government rested with the city administrator. Financial decisions were made by the CFO. Bills got paid, people went to work, and the District continued to function in the mayor’s absence. With an elected controller and a competent city manager provided under an amended home rule charter, the District could be better positioned politically to secure full budget autonomy.

“Every state controls its own budget. Other territories also have complete budget autonomy,” says American University’s Raskin. “Congress does not review the budget of Puerto Rico or the budget of Guam or the budget of the Virgin Islands.”

Beyond the structure of government, Raskin believes that changes in the charter could increase the quality of life for the citizenry as well. If Congress won’t assume responsibility for state functions in what people call America’s City, then let America support it. Citizens in the District who want to attend college should be entitled to resident privileges at any state-supported school in the country. And if District residents can’t get a vote in Congress through their own government, they should be able to cast congressional votes in their home states. For example, if you’re from New Orleans you’d vote in the Louisiana election and therefore could tap that state’s representatives, say Sen. John Breaux or Rep. Cleo Fields. Native Washingtonians would vote with the last state of which the District was a part—Maryland.

“Right now, American citizens who live abroad get to vote in the state they lived in before they left the country. Why not treat the people of the District of Columbia the same way,” continues Raskin.

“It’s a way of making D.C. residents appear on the nation’s political radar screen,” he adds.

From outside the Beltway, the District looks and seems like alien territory. Don’t expect anyone in Congress to help translate the fitful realities of the local government; they’re too busy throwing rocks at the District to notice that they have invented an unworkable monster.

“If this were five years ago, people might see our kind of relationship with Congress as something that hamstrings the District. I’m not so sure people see that now,” says UDC’s Croft. “Because of the political climate, I don’t know if any [charter revisions] will happen.”

Make no mistake, the boys on the Hill aren’t interested. They are still seething from their misadventures with former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly—hell hath no fury like a man ripped off for hundreds of millions of dollars. Republicans and some Democrats simply aren’t willing to talk serious about the city’s future until the control board convinces them that the Barry administration won’t screw them the way Kelly did. Ron Hamm, staff director of the House D.C. Subcommittee, said as much last month during an all-day seminar on the District’s future sponsored by the Brookings Institution.

But the District’s fate should not be tied to the past or present sins of its leaders. Any discussion of the charter has to go beyond personalities and focus on the workability of the city’s approach to governing.

Publisher and author Smith isn’t sure any changes to the home rule charter would ultimately place the District in a better position: “I’m not convinced we can come up with a home rule constitution that will do what you would like it to do,” he says, adding that the fight should be for statehood.

He says the District is facing the “meanest SOBs this town has seen in a long time.”

“They are trying to screw up the country and the closest they can get is D.C.,” he adds.

John Hill of the control board suggests that talk of charter amendments might be premature. He says that part of the control board’s mandate is to suggest to Congress the relationship Congress should have with the city. Before the structure can be determined, there has to be an assessment of what type of government the District’s revenues can support.

“Clearly, some things will have to change with that relationship,” adds Hill.

But the discussion about what kind of government the District needs can’t wait until yet another group conducts yet another study. Every time Congress steps into the arena—expanding this group’s power, clarifying that person’s territorial authority, etc.—it effectively changes the District’s structure of governance, for better or worse.

“We have to get serious about this and recognize this is a national problem,” says Raskin. “The question is, how do we want to govern the nation’s capital?”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michael Kupperman and Darrow Montgomery.