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It’s known in the black community as “The Plan,” and its thesis is that whites are conspiring to take back control of Chocolate City. AIDS, crack, dilapidated housing projects—they’re are all part of implementing the Plan. According to the Plan, blacks who occupy positions of power more often than not serve at the pleasure of the white boys who call the shots.
Believers in the Plan aren’t completely paranoid. The city’s power brokers continually direct Washington’s destiny from offstage, the latest production being the “D.C. Agenda Project: Preparing the Nation’s Capital for the 21st Century.” The Agenda Project is an ambitious blueprint for running the city for the next decade: who will be taxed, what services will be cut, where development will go, and more.
The Plan—er, the Agenda—was conceived and is controlled by the richest, whitest suits in town—the Federal City Council (FCC), which was founded in 1954 by Washington Post Publisher Philip M. Graham. The Agenda Project, which commenced in mid-summer, is sponsored wholly by the Washington Post Co. and two Graham family foundations, the Philip M. Graham Fund and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.
The Agenda Project has recruited the Greater Washington Research Center, the Urban Institute, and several consulting groups, as well as touched base with regional business and government groups. Heading the project are three Marion Barry veterans: The co-chairs are Carol Thompson-Cole, FCC member and former city administrator, and Franklin D. Raines, former D.C. financial adviser. Directing the show is James O. Gibson, former assistant city administrator for planning and development. All three serve on Barry’s transition team, proof that the Mayor-for-Life is on board with this “Plan.”
Even though the Agenda Project’s recommendations are currently being meshed into the incoming Barry administration’s policies, the Agenda Project has failed to attract the direct attention of the reporters and editors who work for its sponsors.
On Nov. 11, Post reporter David Vise wrote a news analysis suggesting that the city imitate policy makers in Cleveland by seeking help from business leaders to build a new political consensus and attract corporate investment for the city. Oddly, Vise’s article fails to note that such a move is very much in the works.
Three days later, Post business columnist Rudolph Pyatt touted such a public/private partnership for D.C. Pyatt also failed to speak of the Agenda Project, but he did quote Phase 1 of the project, “Assessing the District of Columbia’s Financial Future,” a FCC-sponsored study by McKinsey & Co. and the Urban Institute. Pyatt also quoted one of the primary participants in the Agenda Project, Board of Trade Chairman Tuck Nason, who provided a concise description of the “Plan”: “The District is in a financial crisis and we need to look at a comprehensive workout solution that is a three-to-five-year approach.”
Neither Post writer so much as hints that their recommendations and suggestions have already been embraced by the city fathers and the Barry transition team. It begs the question: What did the Post know, and when did it know it?
Or: Why have four estates when you can run the city with only one?
The importance of the D.C. Agenda Project can’t be underestimated. The FCC and its appendages have an extraordinary way of turning “recommendations” into policy. The FCC helped hatch the current basketball-arena deal, and since its inception has spearheaded Southwest’s urban renewal, the Metrorail system, public-education reform, and the Washington Convention Center (as well as the projected one for Mount Vernon Square), among other projects.
The FCC skims its membership from the elite of Washington politics and business, with members hailing from the Cabinet, Congress, academia, and local corporations. So interlocked with other powerful D.C. shadow governments is the FCC membership that it’s enough to make a Marxist out of anyone.
The FCC may have the best interests of the city in mind, but what its aggressive behind-the-scenes politicking and policymaking do is diminish local democracy.
D.C. Agenda Project Associate Melissa O’Neil traces the origins of the current study to a September 1992 meeting between the FCC and Jimmy Carter. The former president encouraged the FCC to transplant the Atlanta Project, a public/private partnership he leads charged with revitalizing 20 troubled neighborhoods in the city. (The Post did report Carter’s proposal.)
The FCC declined Carter’s direct offer of help, but by March of 1993 embraced the Atlanta Project’s philosophy that business must intervene in the finances and welfare of the city.
A three-page summary of the D.C. Agenda Project described it as “the Federal City Council’s goal to develop an organized, consensus-driven framework to address the District’s situation in six action areas, and to have the action plan incorporated into public and private local agendas, in addition to the Federal agenda. The bottom line of the project is the development of a set of initiatives aimed at reducing the overall cost of government, while also improving basic services considered critical if the stepped-up exodus of middle-class taxpayers is to be stopped.”
To accomplish these lofty goals, the Agenda Project has established a rigorous schedule. Step 1—an overall analysis of D.C.’s economic condition—has already been accomplished. It’s the same McKinsey Report that Rudolph Pyatt is so enamored of.
Step 2—gathering opinion data from “stakeholders” in the District—has also quietly been finished. According to O’Neil, the FCC has already conducted three focus groups of 15 city residents and suburbanites each—a low-income group, a middle-class group, and an affluent one. From now until February, the Agenda Project plans to assemble community leaders in similar focus groups.
The FCC hopes that these confabs will identify how to improve the “efficiency and effectiveness of the D.C. government while concurrently re-examining the District’s fiscal relationship with the region and the Federal government,” develop a “plausible, well-grounded economic development plan that can guide efforts to enhance the city’s tax base,” and improve “the overall quality of life, with particular emphasis on public safety; the needs of children and youth, including improving public education; health; and neighborhood development, particularly in and around public housing projects.”
O’Neil says the idea is to identify the solutions to Washington’s problems so the Barry administration can “hit the ground running,” as she puts it.
The three Barry veterans were tapped by the FCC to direct the Agenda Project before Barry’s primary victory. Although Barry has repeatedly crowed that Thompson-Cole is committed to helping his administration, he’s made no mention of the FCC and its “Plan” in his governance. (Of course, had Schwartz, Ray, or Kelly won the election, the FCC would be foisting its plan on them. The FCC pulls the strings; it doesn’t much care who the puppet is.)
The D.C. Agenda Project plans to have it’s recommendations ready for implementation by June, and leave the governing to the mayor, says O’Neil.
Conspiracies aside, the Agenda Project, if adopted by Barry, might be the best thing for the city. The District’s politicians have proved that they don’t have the backbone to make the changes—and cuts—needed if this city is to survive with a modicum of independence from Congress. If social programs are going to be slashed, the business community must be ready to step in and assist if the city is to remain livable.
The McKinsey Report signals what kind of changes the Agenda Project has in mind: It calls for reducing Medicaid expenditures by 7 percent, reducing per-pupil expenditures by 8 percent, and slowing the rate of growth in all other budgets by 1 to 2 percent. It begs the city to capture the savings identified by the Rivlin Commission that are still opportune. It urges that a reciprocal commuter tax be worked out with Maryland and Virginia, calls for the federal government to pay off D.C.’s unfunded pension liability, and recommends an increase in the federal payment to the District.
Without the assistance of the FCC, Barry would have little chance of building consensus between his voters (who expect a massive jobs program) and a Republican-led Congress (which will force deep cuts on the city one way or another). History tells us that, together, Barry and the FCC have the muscle to pass the policies they deem necessary.
So meet the new boss, same as the old boss.