There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
You pay no federal taxes.
The snazzy town house you bought four years ago has doubled in value, but your property taxes haven’t risen a penny.
You’ve always wanted the kids to attend St. Agnes School—nothing beats that Catholic discipline. Now they do, and you don’t even have to pay for it. Your $6,000 education vouchers—a gift from the city—easily cover their tuition.
You don’t have to fight suburban gridlock to get to work. Your firm, like hundreds of others, moved back downtown to cash in on the multimillion-dollar “enterprise zone” tax break.
The mayor is gone. A city manager is running the government now, a real, honest-to-god administrator who can perform his job unencumbered by patronage or rhetoric. The streets are clean for the first time in years. Garbage trucks make daily rounds through your neighborhood—and even collect your newspapers and bottles for recycling.
The city is adding thousands of middle-class families every year, and almost all the poor have vanished. Some fled when they were wiped off the welfare rolls. A few moved away when their university turned into a community college. Most were forced out by a massive gentrification triggered by tax incentives and the abolition of rent control. When real estate prices climbed sky-high, their rents tripled. They packed up, trekked across the city line, and leased apartments in the new suburban ghettos.
But you’ve got nothing to complain about. And if you do, you can take your gripe to a fully empowered national representative. You elect senators, not “shadow” senators. You cast a ballot for a voting member of Congress, not a “delegate.”
And you—a lifelong Democrat, a veteran of the civil rights movement, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and a proud advocate of statehood—pull the lever for a Republican.
Welcome to Newt Gingrich’s Washington, D.C., 2002.
Most Washingtonians assumed that the appointment of the control board (aka the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority) would finally end the District’s anxiety crisis. For six months, D.C. residents had engaged in a frenzy of wild speculation, each day’s budget news fueling more dire predictions about the city’s miserable future. So when the House and Senate finally created the control board in April, District residents could relax. Yes, the budget deficit remains. Yes, rats are frolicking in mountains of uncollected garbage. But home rule survives. Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry still reigns.
At last it seemed safe to toss the Metro section in the trash and start reading the comics again.
But just when you thought the story of the year was over, here comes the story of the decade. Armed with a sheaf of ideas—some wonderful, some horrible, all astonishing—Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.) and his GOP colleagues are launching a crusade to reinvent Washington, to transform it from a worldwide disgrace into a 69-square-mile elephant playground.
“I have seen the great cities of the world. London. Tokyo. Beijing. Paris. Berlin. These cities, some of them, have been around for 1,000 years or more,” says Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee and Gingrich’s “quarterback” for D.C. “If American cities can’t survive 100 years, we are in serious trouble.”
The congressman grins. “But I expect this city to be around and healthy in 1,000 years,” he continues. “It’s going to have to be fine-tuned from time to time. And that is what we are doing now.”
“Fine-tuned”? Forget fine-tuning. If Walsh and the GOP’s top brass get their way, D.C. will embark on the greatest experiment in urban social engineering since the War on Poverty.
For many Republican lawmakers, the District’s collapse was a foregone conclusion, the inevitable outcome of government by good intentions and bad ideas. As Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) told a hearing in February, the District is “a classic example of the failure of the welfare state.” D.C.’s overgenerous entitlements, say conservatives, foster illegitimacy, encourage laziness, and contribute to drug abuse and violent crime. Government by patronage has built a sloppy, corrupt bureaucracy that rewards employees for protecting their jobs rather than delivering services. Public housing pens the poor in dangerous neighborhoods and all but sentences thousands to life on the dole. Exorbitant taxes and lousy public schools drive middle-class residents to the suburbs and destroy the tax base.
But crisis creates opportunity. Till recently, most of the GOP House delegation gave as much TLC to the District as they did Greenpeace. But now Republicans are trying to make D.C. their proving ground, the place where they will show the world that right is right and left is wrong.
No one has seized the moment more fervently than House Speaker—and longtime District-basher—Gingrich. Newt casts himself as the architect of the new D.C. Heoverflows with plans to raze the broken city and build an “urban jewel” in its place. He’s brainstormed with Barry and talked urban renewal with Jack Kemp, the GOP’s ambassador to black America. In the gospel according to Newt, D.C. can prove that the party of Willie Horton is still the party of Abraham Lincoln. D.C. can prove that conservative ideas can bring hope, prosperity, and jobs to African-Americans. And D.C. can prove that the devastated inner city can be restored, if not to glory, at least to self-sufficiency.
The nation’s capital, Gingrich proclaims, should be a city of free enterprise, low taxes, and limited government. “We need a positive word picture of D.C.,” Gingrich told the Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn in January, unleashing his usual Tofflerian jargon. “[The D.C. government] is the least effective local system in America….To the degree it gets in your way—wipe it out.”
And wipe he will. Gingrich began his formal campaign to reincarnate D.C. barely a month ago, but it’s already reaching mammoth proportions. In April and May, the speaker named a half-dozen GOP reps to a “D.C. Task Force.” These members are studying how the District government works—or, rather, how it doesn’t—focusing on public education, welfare, housing, economic development, taxation, and crime. Gingrich charged them with developing sweeping recommendations for remaking D.C.
Task force reps held their first hearings in mid-May and are scheduled to deliver proposals to Walsh by the end of June. Those recommendations won’t be mere recommendations for long. Walsh and his subcommittee will begin marking up the District’s 1996 budget bill as soon as July, and they will insert the most promising ideas into the legislation. Attaching congressional proposals to the budget is pure power politics: The District can’t spend a dime without a congressional OK, so the Hill can earmark funds and force the city to obey its orders.
Meanwhile, other House members are drafting legislation to overhaul the structure of D.C. government and revamp the city’s Department of Corrections.
Gingrich is also recruiting private-sector power brokers for his grand enterprise. Kemp and his think tank, Empower America, are pushing a radical tax plan for the city. And the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), a think tank run by Gingrich’s soul mate Jeff Eisenach, is starting work on a grass-roots “National City Project”—a kind of business counterpart to the congressional reforms.
The wanna-be reformers are gleeful. “D.C. is the nation’s city,” says Jane Fortson, senior fellow at PFF and head of the National City Project. “What better place is there to do something? It’s a city in crisis, and that crisis provides a tremendous opportunity.”
“For years, Congress has tinkered with D.C. We’re done tinkering. We’re going to be decisive,” exclaims one congressional staffer. “We figure we only have another year-and-a-half. Anything is possible.”
It’s that “anything” that worries Washingtonians. They, too, yearn for innovation, for renaissance, for anything to shake the city out of its depression. But the District has been bullied, manipulated, and screwed by the feds for two centuries. The feds have foisted experiment after experiment on D.C., and watched each one fail. So when the gray suits on Capitol Hill say “shining example,” Washingtonians hear “guinea pig.” When they say “congressional recommendations,” Washingtonians hear “congressional orders.” And when they say “model city,” Washingtonians hear “The Plan.”
The GOP’s ideas and its money are welcome, says D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. A congressional dictatorship is not.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to remake the city. Since it created the District 200 years ago, Congress has had several chances to do that, and each time it has gone badly,” says Norton. “This time, you have a Congress that is seriously interested in it and a speaker who is really interested in it, and you might actually be able to get it right.
“But you will only get it right if you get it civically right,” she continues. “If there were some resident who loved me and promised he was going to make me beautiful, I wouldn’t tell him, “I don’t want to be beautiful.’ But I sure hope he would come to me first to ask me how I want to look.
“There is a national interest in seeing that the capital of the United States is a proud place for the whole country. But there are also 600,000 people who live here. You cannot make this a proud place without making them proud of it.”
Nobody, not even the omnipotent Newt, knows exactly what Congress will do to Washington.
But this much is already clear: The D.C. Task Force and the think tanks are envisioning a complete overhaul of what the District does, who inhabits it, who governs it, and where its kids go to school.
Here’s what they are considering:
For starters, Congress might eliminate all federal taxes in D.C.
If a D.C. mayoral election were held tomorrow, Jack Kemp might win. The former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary is tantalizing Washingtonians with the most appealing idea since home rule. In a February Washington Post Op-Ed, Kemp floated a scheme that is a Republican’s (and a D.C. taxpayer’s) wet dream. He proposed to revive the nation’s capital by making it a tax-free zone, a “Hong Kong on the Potomac.” Like residents of the four U.S. territories, Washingtonians would stop paying federal income taxes. District businesses would stop shelling out corporate income taxes and capital gains taxes. Instead, District residents and businesses would take only one hit: a 16 percent flat tax, all revenue going to the city. (A little progressivity would remain. The first $20,000 of individual income would be exempt.) In exchange for the tax break, Congress would eliminate the $660-million federal payment after four years.
Kemp also suggested freezing property taxes for four years and eliminating most requirements for business licenses. In addition, he advocated the creation of a public land trust. Real estate owned by the city—boarded-up public housing, for example—would be transferred to a public-private trust. Low-income Washingtonians would receive shares in the trust, then profit when developers bought and leased the land.
Kemp larded the Op-Ed with the kind of supply-side rhetoric that would normally make Washingtonians apoplectic. (Don’t forget: Then-Congressman Kemp wrote the tax bill that was the vehicle for Reaganomics.) His proposal, he wrote, would lift the District’s poor on a “rising tide.” He tweaked his critics in advance: “Some on the left will oppose this plan—afraid that someone, somewhere, somehow, might get rich.”
But District leaders are not among them. Almost to a person, they are turning cartwheels over Kemp’s scheme. D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, for example, says he “love[s] Kemp’s idea.” Norton does too. She was lobbying for a D.C. federal tax exemption long before Kemp, and she says she “welcomes” the Republican’s assistance in pushing it through.
The idea has enthralled House lawmakers as well. Gingrich has signaled his support (the speaker reportedly favors a “radical empowerment zone,” which is basically a Newt-speak version of Kemp’s idea). Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), who heads the economic development section of the D.C. Task Force, is researching the idea. And Walsh, who calls the proposal “bold,” promises to hold hearings on it this summer.
There’s good reason for the enthusiasm. Hong Kong on the Potomac might be a marvelous place to live, a free-market fantasy land. Washingtonians would get very rich, very quickly. Instead of rendering 30 to 40 percent of their wages unto Caesar, locals would fork over a fraction of that, saving thousands or tens of thousands of dollars each year.
D.C.’s population has plunged from more than 800,000 to less than 600,000 in a generation. Thousands more residents are pulling up stakes every year. But if Congress grants the tax break, people—especially coveted middle-class professionals—will swarm back from the suburbs. “Most of the people who left the city only went a few miles,” says Councilmember Chavous, “A little bit of incentive would have kept them in the city.” And a gigantic tax cut is more than a little bit of incentive.
The struggling private sector would undergo a similar revival. Businesses that once fled to Fairfax would return in droves. What CEO wouldn’t leap at the chance to raise profits by 20 or 30 percent?
The tax cut would lift more than just bottom lines, say advocates. The influx of middle-income families would bring much-needed parental involvement and attention to the public schools. The rise in property values would usher in a construction boom. Blighted neighborhoods would bloom again. Abandoned and decaying buildings would be razed; new townhouses would rise in their place. Crime rates would tumble. Gushers of tax revenue would fill the city treasury. The city, flush for the first time in decades, could finally repair its bridges and roads, build new schools, and modernize its garbage hauling. Goodbye, Murder Capital, U.S.A. Hello, Dream City!
At least for those who can afford to stay. Hong Kong on the Potomac will slam D.C.’s poor. Thousands of Washingtonians pay almost no income tax anyway: A rebate wouldn’t put a penny in their pockets. And while their incomes stagnate, the cost of living in Washington would rise rapidly, bringing higher rents that would force them out of the market.
The city would suffer a massive population exchange, one that would radically change the character of the city. Middle- and upper-class folks—some black, mostly white—would flood back into the city. But poor Washingtonians—poor black Washingtonians—would be driven out to the ‘burbs.
(Home rule zealots take note: Kemp’s scheme would cripple the statehood movement as well. D.C. activists have pinned their hopes on the principle that it’s unjust for the feds to tax the District while denying the city a vote in Congress. When the taxes disappear, so will that argument.)
Hong Kong on the Potomac might also devolve into Monaco on the Potomac, a haven for shadow residents. Rich Americans could buy one-bedroom apartments, switch their official residencies to the District, and cash in on the tax rebate. Businesses, too, might reincorporate in Washington, open shell D.C. offices, and waltz away with their tax windfalls.
The president of Empower America, Bill Dal Col, claims that neither the flight of the poor nor the tricks of the rich are inevitable outcomes of a tax-free D.C. According to Dal Col, a real estate trust would protect and enrich many poor Washingtonians. And, the think-tank president adds, the tax rebate could be limited to income earned in Washington, forcing businesses and people who move to D.C. to put their money to work here.
If philosophical objections don’t doom the Kemp idea, politics might. Kemp’s scheme terrifies members of Congress who represent the D.C. suburbs. Prince George’s, Arlington, Fairfax, and Montgomery Counties have profited for years from District population drain. Hong Kong on the Potomac could devastate them, killing suburban property values and adding enormous social welfare costs. The Maryland and Virginia delegations will maneuver ferociously to stop Congress from enacting a no-tax law.
But it’s not only the D.C. suburbs that may fight the proposal. Why, after all, should the sorry, Dudley Do-Wrong District get a massive tax break? The District now pays about $1.5 billion per year in federal income taxes. If it became a tax haven, the U.S. Treasury would lose that money, as well as all the tax revenue from new immigrants and businesses. Abolishing the federal payment would retrieve about 40 percent of the lost funds, but Congress would still find itself about a billion bucks short. This is a mammoth sum at a time when the GOP is trying desperately to balance the budget.
Though tax-free D.C. is probably too pie-in-the-sky to pass congressional muster, it is clearing the way for less ambitious tax reform. Both Hill staffers and D.C. officials says it’s better than 50-50 that Congress will pass some rollback of D.C. taxes this summer.
At least one compromise proposal—Kemp-lite, if you will—is already making the rounds. A few days after Kemp’s Op-Ed, a group of local economists, policy wonks, and businesspeople recommended that Congress halve D.C.’s federal income, capital gains, and estate taxes.
“The tax reduction would certainly be substantial enough to test the Republican hypothesis that lower tax rates can generate economic prosperity in troubled urban areas, yet not so substantial as to be an indefensible loophole,” wrote Ralph Benko, a Bethesda businessman, in a Post Outlook piece.
Tax reform may be a question mark. Congressionally mandated school reform is a certainty.
Attacks on the woeful D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), frequent at the best of times, have been nonstop in recent months. The schools brought it on themselves. DCPS made sham cuts in the central administration. Fire code violations forced schools to open a week late in the fall; A cash shortage will close them a week early this spring. Teachers have been accused of giving students answers to standardized tests (a strategy that has not managed to improve DCPS students’ abysmal scores). The Board of Education, already one of the highest-paid in the country, struck its blow for sound financial management: Board members accepted a large pay raise even as funding cuts are devastating classrooms. And don’t forget DCPS’s chronic security lapses, bogus enrollment figures, sky-high dropout rate, crumbling buildings, and bloated bureaucracy.
So it’s no surprise that the GOP is concocting some strong educational medicine for Washington. The speaker has appointed Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.) to lead the D.C. Task Force’s educational section. Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee, is engaging in a similar investigation on the Senate side.
According to staffers, the House reformers are seeking educational salvation in the free market. They are studying the feasibility of vouchers, charter schools, and privatization.
Gingrich opened the education debate with a bang in March, suggesting that D.C. distribute a tuition voucher to any parent who wants one. Right-leaning reformers adore this idea. Vouchers push all their ideological hot keys: free market, choice, parental involvement, smaller government.
In theory, vouchers would work like this: The parents of a DCPS student could withdraw the child from public school, then get a voucher to pay for tuition at a private (or, possibly, parochial) school. The size of the voucher is a matter for debate: It could be as little as $2,000 or as much as $8,000 per student. Voucher advocates assert that tuition assistance would be a godsend for poor parents seeking choice in education. They also claim that vouchers would improve public schools by forcing them to compete or collapse.
No one knows if they’re right. Vouchers are a new idea. Only a handful of jurisdictions (notably Milwaukee, Wisc.) have established voucher pilot programs. D.C. would be a major test drive for vouchers. According to local education experts, a successful trial here would set the stage for similar programs nationwide.
But the prospect of a congressionally mandated, systemwide voucher program infuriates public-school advocates. D.C. voters rejected vouchers in a ballot initiative a few years ago. In May, the school board reiterated that opposition. By a margin of 8-1, the board condemned vouchers as a threat to public education. Tuition assistance, say critics, would undermine confidence in public schools, yet serve few pupils. District private schools, they say, can’t take in every student who flees DCPS.
Just as Kemp’s radical tax proposal is opening the way for a more modest tax rollback, so the systemwide voucher debate is clearing a path for less drastic educational reforms.
House lawmakers now distance themselves from a systemwide tuition program. But they are not retreating from a small voucher experiment.
“Vouchers are still their No. 1 big deal,” says Jim Ford, lead staffer to the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education and Libraries.
Gunderson is reportedly considering a one-ward voucher trial, and it appears District officials will go along with the idea. Barry has grudgingly endorsed a small-scale voucher test on 5-10 percent of the DCPS enrollment. And Superintendent Franklin Smith told Gunderson in May that he doesn’t object to the principle of vouchers.
The Hill will also try to buttress Smith’s own reforms. The superintendent has been trying—with limited success—to introduce competition and local control to D.C.’s top-heavy system. The school board, the bureaucracy, and the teachers’ union have blocked him at every turn. Some reformers believe that the heavy hand of Congress will do for DCPS what it has never been able to do for itself.
“School reform in D.C. has always been a Potemkin village,” says school expert Mary Levy of Parents United. “We say we have enterprise schools and charter schools, but we don’t. If Congress can make real the superintendent’s reform program, that would be a fine thing.”
And Congress may do exactly that. Hill staffers, for example, propose putting teeth in D.C.’s nascent charter-school program. The program now allows D.C. teachers to start their own school-within-a-school, an arrangement that gives faculty a slight amount of freedom from the DCPS bureaucracy. Congress may loosen the charter rules enormously. One idea under consideration is to allow outside groups—universities, Smithsonian museums, parents associations—to open independent public schools.
The Hill also hopes to jam free enterprise into DCPS. In 1994, Smith suggested that DCPS hire a private, for-profit management firm to operate about a dozen schools. He withdrew the suggestion when the teachers’ union, several board members, and parents accused him of trying to destroy public education and place black children in the hands of a white-owned company. The Hill may revive the proposal and force D.C. to implement Smith’s 1994 plan.
But it’s not just lousy grade schools that anger Congress. The Hill reformers are also training their sights on the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and the D.C. School of Law. The struggling law school has survived countless dates with the budget executioner. There will almost certainly be no reprieve this year. Staffers say that unless the city closes the law school on its own, the Hill will probably shutter it this summer.
UDC will probably survive the summer, but perhapss not in its current incarnation. For years, critics have been savaging the school for its low graduation rate and gigantic administrative costs, questioning why the District spends more than $50 million annually on a university that awards fewer than 1,000 degrees per year. “Is there any reason,” asks a Walsh staffer, “why UDC is not a community college?” As far as many Republican members are concerned, the answer is no.
Charter schools are sexy and tax-free zones have their own charms, but how about a proposal to hand a cash payment to every girl in the District who doesn’t reproduce? Now that’s social engineering.
D.C. may become the showcase for really radical welfare reform. Gingrich has tapped Rep. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) to lead the welfare arm of the D.C. Task Force. Talent drafted the Contract With America’s original welfare bill, but according to his press secretary Steve Boriss, the congressman was a little disappointed with what passed. Several of Talent’s favorite provisions dropped out of the legislation.
And they may be dropping right into the District. According to Boriss, Talent wants D.C. to open group homes for unwed mothers and their children. The congressman hopes to eliminate all incentives for young mothers to leave their parents and set up housekeeping on their own. And he may even recommend that D.C. give a cash reward to girls who reach 18 without bearing a child.
The rest of the D.C. government won’t escape the eager hands of Gingrich and the Newtonians, either. Housing? Task force member Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) has suggested that D.C. give away boarded-up developments. Nonprofits and for-profits would rehab the buildings and manage them—independent of the government bureaucracy. Rent control? The Hill’s free-marketeers would like to scrap it. Prisons? Virginia Reps. Frank Wolf, Jim Moran, and Tom Davis have introduced a bill to phase out Lorton over five years and disperse D.C. felons throughout the federal prison system.
But wait, there’s more! Why suffer through four more embarrassing years with the Mayor-for-Life when you don’t have to? One congressman is pushing a bill that would accomplish in one day what the FBI and the Department of Justice couldn’t in five years. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), who serves on Walsh’s D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee, is drafting a bill that would impose a “council-manager” government on D.C.
The council-manager—also known as the “weak mayor” system—is a classic goo-goo idea for removing politics from city government. Under this system, the city manager—a glorified version of D.C.’s city administrator—supervises the entire executive branch. The D.C. Council writes all legislation and hires the manager; the mayor’s office and staff essentially vanish. The city council chair assumes the title of “mayor,” but gains no executive authority.
Bonilla denies that he’s trying to dethrone Barry—“This is not about personalities.” The congressman says that the council-manager form thrives in Western cities like his own San Antonio, and it would work just as well in D.C. He plans to introduce the council-manager bill this summer. “The current system needs to be changed,” Bonilla says. “I cannot imagine anyone being for the status quo.”
Walsh says he will hold a hearing on the proposal this summer, but adds that Congress probably wouldn’t pass such a law for several years.
“Once the city is functioning smoothly, who knows what happens?” Walsh says. “But right now, with garbage piling up and police unable to walk the beat, we are in no position to change the structure of government.”
GOP legislators might not rid themselves of the D.C. pol they hate—Marion Barry—but they might reward the one they love—Eleanor Holmes Norton. For years, liberal Democrats have been lobbying to win D.C. a voting representative and two voting senators. For years, Republicans and conservative Democrats have blocked them. Now, in a weird turnabout, the Grand Old Party is seeking voting representation for Washington. Jeffords is preparing a bill to give D.C. a voting member of the House (but not the Senate). Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) has introduced a measure to retrocede the District—except for the federal core—to Maryland. And Gingrich has aired a modified version of Regula’s proposal: The District would remain independent but would count as Maryland’s Ninth Congressional District for federal elections. Washingtonians would cast ballots for the two Maryland senators and a member of the House who would serve in Maryland’s delegation.
All three schemes are far-fetched: Jeffords’ is still struggling with constitutionality, and Gingrich’s and Regula’s ideas also may not pass legal muster. (Gingrich’s suggestion in particular seems to violate the principle of one person, one vote. About 620,000 people reside in each Maryland congressional district, 40,000 more than live in D.C.)
And neither Gingrich’s nor Regula’s idea seems strong enough to overcome Maryland opposition. Many Free State pols fear the District vote. D.C.’s black, urban, Democratic population might swing statewide power away from white, suburban Republicans. Rep. Connie Morella (a white, suburban Republican) has dismissed Gingrich’s plan as “ridiculous.”
And what do the lab rats think?
They’re really not sure. On the one hand, Washingtonians are greeting Hong Kong on the Potomac with a surprising eagerness. “I don’t know why they call it a Republican idea,” says Norton. “Nine out of 10 Democratic Washingtonians I talk to like it.”
Nor have other Republican schemes sparked the knee-jerk caterwauling you might expect from the city’s true-blue Democrats. The welfare, education, public-housing, and retrocession proposals have been welcomed, if warily. As the Post editorialized last month: “How should a penniless, inefficient city government react to proposals of outside help that entail major changes in local policies? You don’t just say no.”
But you don’t say, “Welcome to Washington—do whatever you want,” either. The District of Columbia is already a 204-year-old experiment—a failed experiment—in congressional manipulation. For two centuries District residents have been done to, rather than done, been acted upon, rather than acted. GOP reformers, say longtime Washingtonians, must remember this record before they start handing out vouchers and shipping D.C. crooks to federal prisons.
“The history of the District and Congress is totally adversarial,” says Norton. “It is a history of people attaching things to appropriations to grandstand for folks back home, a history of people trying to cut our funding, a history of people trying to tell us what to do without having a clue, a history of people District-bashing.”
This is not the first time the feds have pulled up in a firetruck pledging to “save” the city. Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson both promised to turn the captive capital into an exemplar. The two Democrats poured millions into War on Poverty programs. That money produced little but a few short-term jobs and political opportunities for community organizer Barry.
In 1968, Richard Nixon vowed to fight crime in the nation’s capital and rebuild riot-torn D.C. as “a model city.” Nixon funneled $30 million to the District for parks and shopping malls. But almost nothing was built. The funds were lost in the bureaucracy or squandered in battles over community control.
Home rule’s arrival in 1975 stopped big rescue attempts, but it didn’t stop congressional micro-management. Or rather, congressional micro-mismanagement. Consider the history of the appropriations process. In his 1995 book Congress and the Governance of the Nation’s Capital: The Conflict of Federal and Local Interests, Howard University professor Charles Wesley Harris chronicles an amazing record of federal meddling in appropriations. During the past 20 years, Harris writes, Congress has employed the appropriations process to: change affirmative action policies in the D.C. Fire Department; forbid gay partnerships; compel D.C. to hold a death-penalty referendum; force the city to hire more than 1,000 new cops; block D.C. from using its own funds to subsidize abortions; and require the city to keep open a totally unnecessary fire station on Capitol Hill. For years, lawmakers even prevented D.C. from installing meters in cabs. Who cares if the zone system is incomprehensible and unfair? Meters would raise fares for legislators and lobbyists cabbing around the Hill.
So is it any wonder that Washingtonians cringe when Republicans discuss using the appropriations bill to foist policy on D.C.?
And is it any wonder that the prospect of unilaterally imposed GOP schemes have raised small-d democratic hackles all over the city?
“Our people should not be shoved into a laboratory cage merely to enable a handful of ambitious national politicians to try out their theories about how people should live, work, and get their education,” Councilmember John Ray told reporters last month.
Washingtonians react with horror at the prospect of some congressman from Missouri (or worse, his 25-year-old staffer) rewriting the city’s welfare regs. District residents may like Jack Kemp, but why is a former HUD secretary from New York—who lives in D.C. only because he’s waiting for the next Republican administration—drafting our new tax plan?
“It should not be congressional staff from Georgia making the decisions about the future of Washington,” says Councilmember Chavous. “We cannot have the perspective of staffers who come from jurisdictions totally unlike D.C. imposed on District residents.”
Others slam the GOP for circumventing the mayor, the council, and the very control board that the Hill just spent months creating. “If they have ideas, they should end up before the control board and the council and the mayor,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
Even local GOP stalwarts bristle at the prospect of outsiders dictating local policy. “It is all very well for people in Congress or people who used to be in Congress to say, “We are going to try this, this, and this.’ Those guys can get up and walk away,” says Julie Finley, chairwoman of the D.C. Republicans. “The District’s problems need to be solved by the people who live here, who serve on the PTA, who work in the D.C. government, who raise families.
“It is very un-Republican to do it otherwise.”
Sen. Jeffords agrees, and he is actually in a position to do something about it.
Before any of the House’s spectacular schemes become law, they must win an OK from the Senate. And before they win that OK, they will probably need support, or at least acquiescence, from the chairman of the D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee. (The president, of course, could veto any D.C. bill, but most observers say Clinton would never risk political capital on the nation’s capital.)
And right now, Jeffords is not jumping on the Gingrich bandwagon. The veteran senator is probably the most liberal Republican in the upper chamber. He describes a D.C. at odds with the tax-free, welfare-free, mayor-free conservative happy land conceived by some House lawmakers.
Take education. “I am not one of those who goes around saying we are going to privatize all the schools or we are going to give everyone a voucher,” Jeffords says. He proposes a hands-off approach, exactly the opposite of what is being pursued in the House. Rather than try to impose vouchers or charter schools from the Hill, the senator advocates creating a “school control board” to oversee DCPS policy. Its five to seven members—most of whom would be local—would wield broad power to set local educational policy.
In the end, Jeffords suggests, the battle for D.C. reform may repeat—in miniature—the battle over the Contract With America. The boisterous, populist GOP House could pass sweeping, hastily crafted legislation. And the staid, ponderous Senate could try to soften it.
“Of course they all want to do their contract experiments. Give everyone a voucher and have a flat tax,” Jeffords says, gently dismissing his House colleagues. “As usual, those of us in the middle of the fray and the political spectrum will have to work out some agreements and negotiate them…with an emphasis on getting what the people of Washington want.”
Some on the House side aren’t so sure that Jeffords will block major reforms to D.C. “Sen. Jeffords is very involved, engaged, and interested, and he thinks [saving the District] is important,” says Walsh. “If one senator wants to make something happen…[Jeffords] could probably do it.”
But if Jeffords doesn’t stand in the way of the House proposals, who will?
Odd as it may sound, it may be the House reformers themselves. Their own ideological convictions could cripple the campaign to remake D.C.
House Republicans know they can do anything to the District. The Constitution and the home rule act grant Congress nearly unlimited authority over the nation’s capital. If Gingrich persuaded 217 colleagues, 51 senators, and the president that the mayor of Washington should dress like a clown, then Barry would have to start shopping for kente-striped Bobo suits.
House Republicans long to foist a conservative agenda on the District. At the same time, they know they can’t—their ideas will fail unless Washington embraces them.
More important, the Republicans know they shouldn’t impose their agenda on D.C. This Congress was swept into office by grass-roots, anti-government activists. Its members have vowed to return power to the states, strip down the federal bureaucracy, and let communities decide for themselves what government they need. So they are in an ideological bind: They can’t simultaneously use D.C. as an experimental lab and promise to return power to local officials.
This dilemma plagues the whole Newtonian campaign, and it’s not clear which side is winning. On the one hand, Gingrich promised Norton that she would be included in all District planning. On the other, the speaker appointed only Republicans to the D.C. Task Force. And Norton first heard about the task force when she read about it in the newspaper.
No one seems as torn by this question as Walsh, probably the most important person (after Gingrich) in the D.C. revival campaign. Will he opt for inclusion? Or imposition? Right now, Walsh has settled for ambivalence. The chairman pledges to consult Washingtonians before doing anything. “We need to have people within the District who are respected and trusted buy in,” he says. “We can’t do it alone. There is no way that Congress in a vacuum is going to present these ideas and require that they be implemented. We have to build a consensus.”
But a minute later Walsh insists that Congress can’t bow to the wishes of District residents. This is the nation’s capital, and Congress owes it to the nation to do whatever is needed to save the city.
“All the District has wanted from Congress is the money,” Walsh says. “ “Just give us the money.’ That is what the mayor said at the beginning of this crisis. But the answer to that is a flat-out no!
“This is taxpayers’ money,” he continues, “It comes from Syracuse and L.A. and Missoula. And we have a responsibility to make sure it is well spent….The idea is to get the council and the mayor to buy into these ideas.
“But they are not going to buy into everything,” Walsh says. He shrugs his shoulders, which is a politican’s way of telling Washington, “tough luck.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery and Michael Reidy.