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Since the election, Democratic congressional committee staffers have been scurrying around, trying to justify their existences and protect themselves from the Republican massacre to come. Nowhere is the frenzy more pronounced than at the House’s District of Columbia Committee, even though Republicans have already slated that panel for oblivion. Perhaps to make themselves look good to potential new employers, the committee’s staff and some of its members are rewriting history, proclaiming themselves the last saviors of home rule. When we’re gone, they tell the District, you’re gonna miss us.
They’re wrong. The District’s red-ink problem constitutes a booming endorsement of the Republican decision to abolish the District Committee, not to mention ample documentation that the committee has neglected its oversight duties. While the Democratic controlled committee should have been watching, the District amassed a $450-million budget deficit and a $100-million cash shortage. Crime soared while police hiring was reduced. District public schools physically deteriorated. And several city agencies slowly fell under court jurisdiction after failing to provide services mandated by city law.
The committee’s Democratic members of Congress—not to mention the nearly 40 staff members who provided technical and administrative support—might take a lesson from Stansfield Turner. Earlier this month, the former CIA director proclaimed his incompetence, admitting that under his watch, the CIA failed to forecast the world’s affairs, including the fall of the Berlin Wall. That candor helped disarm his critics. Sometimes the best offense is no defense.
But don’t look for any Democratic committee member or staffer to speak ill of the near-dead. Broderick Johnson, who holds the dubious distinction of being the committee’s last staff director, says his people “worked hard.”
“When I started,” he says, “the chairman said the committee was overstaffed, some were underpaid, and there were people who had nothing to do. I was given the responsibility to ensure people worked harder on District issues.”
But what did the committee—which had a personnel budget of $2 million, plus another $300,000 for supplies and equipment—consider hard work?
Since the 103rd Congress opened in January 1993, only six of the 39 bills handled by the House District Committee ever became law—testimony to the committee’s ineffectiveness. During that same period, Johnson says, the committee held an underwhelming 13 meetings.
Johnson admits that the record looks abysmal, but he says the committee should not be expected to introduce and pass a great deal of legislation. Those prerogatives, he says, belong to the District’s own elected officials.
As evidence of what a fired-up District Committee can do, Johnson points to the recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the District’s finances. This spring, the committee demanded the federal audit. When the report was released this summer, it documented what had been common knowledge for the past three years: The District was in deep financial trouble, and city officials had used every accounting gimmick available to mask their overspending and mismanagement.
The GAO report roused the comatose committee to action. Committee members forced city officials to explain the 1995 budget they had submitted to Congress. The report also spurred Republicans to demand spending cuts. But for city residents and businesses who would have to pay the price for years of lax congressional oversight, those bursts of activity were too little, too late.
Congress established the House District Committee in 1808 to deal with the affairs of the nation’s capital. Originally, committee members and their staff were workhorses. They handled much of the city’s day-to-day business—everything from approving a liquor license to granting a building permit. In practice, Congress treated the city as a federal agency, scrutinizing the District’s every move.
But all of that changed in 1974, when the home rule charter granted the District limited self-governance. Committee members were now understood to be distant overseers, rather than hands-on managers; actual program and policy decisions now belonged to the elected city government. But there was a caveat: Congress retained its right to intercede at any time it believed that the federal interest was compromised or that the District’s health—fiscal or otherwise—was in jeopardy.
While soaking up millions of dollars in salaries, the committee repeatedly failed to stop the District from hurting itself.
Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) has for years been perceived as a friend of the District. But even when Bliley sounded the alarm, then-Committee Chairman Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) failed to rescue the city he had pledged to protect.
“We all are deeply disappointed that additional federal funding and other budgetary and administrative reforms requested have not resulted in resolving the District’s budgetary difficulties,” Bliley wrote to Dellums in a letter dated Dec. 31, 1992. “Indeed, according to recent accounts, the crisis is getting only worse.
“Many reforms proposed by the Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities of the District of Columbia (the Rivlin Commission) have not been implemented,” Bliley continued. “A subsequent report by the Greater Washington Research Center suggests that the number of city employees has actually increased. The Research Center estimates that the accumulated deficit may reach over $400 million this year and warns that the deficit may impede the city’s ability to sell its notes or bonds without Federal assistance….These problems will face the Committee again in the next Congress.”
So what were the more than 25 staffers working for the House District Committee doing while the District sank in the red-ink sea? What so captured the committee’s attention that it was blinded to what Bliley saw?
The committee’s record during the 102nd Congress is no better than its current stats. From January 1990 until December 1992, the House District Committee held only 13 full committee meetings or hearings, and its three subcommittees met a mere 12 times. (Even that low number is deceptively flattering: A third of those gatherings were continuations of previous hearings.) The committee referred 13 bills or resolutions to the House and Senate. Three of those specifically addressed the city’s fiscal problems; one bill gave Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon the authority to cut the budgets of independent agencies if the city were running a budget deficit. But more than half the 13 bills never became law.
By January 1993, when the 103rd Congress got under way, Dellums left the District Committee to chair the Arms Committee, and Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark (D-Calif.) took Dellums’ old job. Stark appointed Johnson his staff director, awarding him a plush budget and increasing the staff to 40. Stark was a blustery leader, full of tough instructions to look in every nook and cranny of the city’s operation. But it wasn’t until this summer—after the District had already plummeted into the depths of fiscal mismanagement and deficit spending—that the committee finally rose to the occasion for which it was created. Stark joined District Appropriations Committee Chairman Julian Dixon (D-Calif.) to call for the GAO report, and at long last, the new get-tough-with-the-District era dawned.
But the committee had missed its moment. As Republicans reshape Congress, the House District of Columbia Committee is slated to become a historical footnote. The committee’s responsibilities will now fall to the newly created Committee on Government Reform and Oversight.
Johnson says proposed changes could damage the city at a time it needs all the help it can get: “Conditions are more ripe than ever for District affairs to get more short shrift than [they] ever have. Home rule has not faced this kind of danger before.”
Johnson’s forecast contains some truth, but Republicans are not to blame for the city’s current position. Democratic “friends” of the city planted the seeds for the eventual loss of home rule. To retain it, the District’s elected leaders must show quickly that they can bring the city under control—an intimidating task, to say the least.
The title of the new House committee indicates wishful thinking on the part of the Republicans, who believe that true oversight will lead to reform. This summer, Republican leaders sought to restrict city spending when they called for a portion of the District’s $660-million federal payment to cover overdue bills from the retirement board. Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), who led that movement, is expected to head the subcommittee on the District. He has already carved out his position, stating that he does not intend to sit idly as the nation’s capital goes bankrupt.
Closer financial oversight by the Republicans will translate into greater scrutiny of city-run programs. Some—such as corrections, Medicaid, welfare and other social services—have historically overspent. Others, such as public housing, have just been miserably managed. Already the courts have placed two programs in receivership and others under its direct oversight.
If the city government alone doesn’t avert financial disaster, don’t be surprised if the Republican-led subcommittee hires new personnel, holds demagogic hearings, and reanimates the well-staffed committee it’s just buried.
The only difference is that these staffers will all wear their hair in a Gingrich pudding-bowl cut, and instead of doing absolutely nothing, they’ll delve five layers into the District’s business.