Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The decision by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to halt the butt-kicking Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) was inflicting on the District in the form of his fiscal 1996 appropriations bill is being celebrated throughout the city. But the public grousing and pleading by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Marion Barry, the sideline sitting of D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke, and the Republicans’ eleventh-hour rescue is another pathetic refrain of politics as usual.
Norton and Barry, seeing their political futures in possible jeopardy, urged Gingrich to call off the government-eating Walsh. In his maiden voyage as chairman of the House District Appropriations Subcommittee, Walsh won approval for his proposal to reduce the city’s $5.2-billion fiscal 1996 budget by a whopping $148 million. The measure caps ’96 appropriations slightly under the fiscal 1995 level, and cuts $100 million more than recommended by the congressionally created control board. Walsh also proposed 40 amendments, including slashing school board members’ salaries from $33,000 to $5,000; mandating privatization of more than 10 percent of city schools (in addition to school security, food, and maintenance services); eliminating two cost-of-living increases for police, firefighters, and teachers; decontrolling rental units that become vacant; and subjecting city workers to penalties for knowingly overspending the budget. Walsh suggested all of the micromanagement was “better than no management.”
But while the delegate and the mayor were whispering sweet nothings in the Speaker’s ear, the council chairman was nowhere to be found. Some staffers said Clarke privately made telephone calls to Hill leadership after Walsh’s reckless appropriations bill passed—but he was mostly out-of-sight and out-of-mind.
Norton and Barry couldn’t afford to be invisible; they were captured grinning on camera following their meeting with Gingrich, as if the brief reprieve they won from the Speaker guarantees that the Republicans still won’t stomp all over the city’s limited home rule when all is said and done. Norton is up for re-election next year, and she doesn’t expect it to be an easy campaign. Earlier, she garnered praise for advocating the creation of a control board, believing it would serve as a fort against Republican encroachment, but that protection against assaults on home rule seems to be dissipating. Barry isn’t up for re-election yet, but he’s never turned down an opportunity to gain political points. That leaves poor Clarke—and it’s unclear whether he even sees that his lack of a prominent role may be a speeding train hastening his demise.
But it’s Walsh and the Republicans who are playing the high-stakes politics and even- higher-stakes revenge. It’s payback time on the Hill.
For almost three years, Walsh languished as a minority member of the subcommittee while Democrats routinely blocked his attempts to put fiscal constraints on the District: In 1994, after the GAO disclosed the city’s dire financial condition, Walsh offered seven amendments to the District’s 1995 budget including one that would have placed part of the $660 federal payment in escrow. All but two of his amendments were defeated by Democrats on the subcommittee, the full committee, and later in the House. This time around, however, Walsh was armed with a majority and a long memory; there was no stopping him from getting his hands all over the District.
“Your judgment has prevailed in Congress for 16 years,” Walsh told Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.) during the subcommittee markup. “This is an opportunity to put our judgment into law.”
Enter Gingrich, playing good cop, acting as if he had been caught unawares by Walsh’s plantation-style fiat. The New York Republican, never one to mince words, clearly telegraphed his intentions long before the subcommittee meeting. Moreover, Walsh staffers indicated prior to the subcommittee markup that Republican leadership had given the novice chairman the go-ahead on his amendments; Gingrich knew all along where the Walsh attack was headed. But his decision to punch in publicly on behalf of the District is playing to the gallery: He wants to send a signal throughout the city—especially to African-Americans—that he is willing to come to its aid. The national election is fast approaching, so Gingrich is hoping to suggest that Republicans aren’t so bad for black folks and urban centers after all.
While the decades-old political game takes a new turn, the city’s health and the interests of residents have become background props.
As a corporation—and the District government is a corporation, albeit a nonprofit—there must be a single entity held accountable for the organization’s success or failure. Most major companies in America operate with one CEO—one person chiefly responsible for making and implementing decisions designed to improve product, increasing profits, and satisfying the board of directors, stockholders, and customers. The ever-expanding list of CEOs for the District spells danger: The House District committee, the House District Appropriations Subcommittee, and the control board, have each usurped a significant portion of the responsibility and power of local elected officials. Congress has decided to snatch back line-management of the District—in the form of Walsh’s subcommittee vote and the Senate vote—without relieving the control board of its responsibility. It’s all confusing; each CEO is stepping over the other.
In the interim, however, the city’s financial problems worsen: Bills are going unpaid while both the quality and quantity of municipal services diminish. A full plan for re-engineering the dysfunctional government has yet to be developed; the Walsh appropriations bill, like proposals submitted by the control board, simply nibbles around the edges of a crumbling institution. Something far more radical than merely reducing FTE (full-time equivalent positions) must be done to revive and make whole the District government.
If the District is going to recover and become a model of redesigned urban centers, Congress has to permit the structure it created an opportunity to work. It has to allow the control board the authority implied in its name—financial and program changes must be the domain of the five-member panel, working in concert with elected officials.
That Gingrich has decided to play good cop is not good enough; he needs to tell Walsh and his allies that the District is not their fiefdom. Let them wait until later in the year to see what the control board does to improve the city. In February, the board and elected officials will produce a supplemental budget for ’96 and a multiyear financial plan. That document could very well contain some of the same ingredients proposed by the subcommittee. But if that doesn’t serve the purpose, Congress can do what Congressman Dixon suggested: instead of gumming up the works, it can repeal the city’s limited home rule, snatch back its proxy, and do all of the work itself, not just lay a bunch of half-baked, lame proposals at the District government’s door.