- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

Having so far met each federally legislated prerequisite, D.C. officials now anxiously await dissolution of the control board and full restoration of home rule and deservedly so. Indeed even Congress, obligated by the U.S. Constitution to exercise "exclusive" oversight regarding legislative and budgetary functions in the nation's capital, had initial concerns in 1995 about its role in creating, let alone, solving the District's full-blown financial crisis. Without doubt, there was plenty of blame spread all about Washington. However, while the District has certainly come a long and calculated way in a very short time, Congress must not look the other way.

Mayor Williams, who played two roles in the District's recovery (first as chief financial officer and now as mayor), is now urging Congress to strike a "fair balance" between D.C. and federal priorities in general and grant the District autonomy over budgetary and legislative affairs in particular. Because Congress must appropriate D.C. dollars just as it does federal dollars, and because the District's annual budget bill is tied to federal legislation, the mayor says Congress "micromanages" the District and that its oversight process "hampers planning and disrupts service delivery."

Would that the District's problems were so simple to solve, but they are not. Contrary to the mayor's assertion, mismanagement, unqualified workers and rubber stamps are the true culprits. Congress was hardly to blame for unfilled potholes. Nor was Congress to blame for those poorly written and costly contracts the D.C. Council used to approve without question contracts that went to friends of whoever and which the council failed to check on for years on end. Moreover, the District sank into the toilet while Democrats controlled Congress. These were politicians who were more loyal to the party line than to the taxpayers who paid their salaries.

Not until the Republican Party won both the House and Senate in 1994 did Congress or the White House hold serious deliberations on the District, which was, by the way, in such dire straits that its deficit was a moving target, and its bonds were mere junk. Still, even as Congress considered suspending home rule in 1995, voters did little more than shuffle the political deck. In turn, they elected "leaders" who constantly blamed inadequate revenues, statehood, commuter taxes and the right to do as they please rather than unchecked spending.

Enter Public Law 104-8, which created the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, or control board, in 1995 and the revitalization act in 1997, which forced the District's leadership to choose between paving the roadways and chasing potholes, paying its bills and creating new ones. Remarkably, Congress' tough-love approach worked. As the mayor and some members of the council were able to beam recently, you have to see the new District of Columbia to believe it.

Perhaps that it why it is somewhat surprising to know the mayor the fiscally conservative Tony Williams believes the District deserves autonomy. For one thing, while the courts ruled the relationship between the District and the federal government is a legislative, not a judicial matter, the District remains in recovery mode. So, D.C. officials need to stay on mark. For another, while it is quite tempting to have utter confidence in the current mayor and the current crop of D.C. lawmakers, federal authorities should think again. Voters have another shot at reshuffling the deck in 2002.

Moreover, Marylanders and Virginians who work in the District should remain mindful of another issue and ask themselves another pertinent question: What would be one of the first legislative moves D.C. officials would make while the back of Congress is turned? D.C. officials, regardless of what they have said and might say, would love nothing better than to tax commuters. Fortunately, they cannot do so. They cannot because federal law forbids them, and because the U.S. Constitution provides for congressional oversight at every turn.

To be sure, many of the current players in this remarkable town had little part in the messes the District got itself into and played no role in getting the District out of them. However, the early 1990s is not so long ago that we ought to have forgotten what it felt like to be drowning in a sea of red ink. What is more, this does not mean that there are no remaining serious issues that deserve attention now that the District is out of the fiscal woods. Foremost, the Bush White House and Congress should consider restoring the congressional delegate's voting privileges, reopening Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and re-establishing a payment in lieu of federal taxes. Solving those three issues those three parochial but critical issues would just about put the District in the same favorable place it was in before the flood gates of deficit spending opened. In other words, D.C. officials need to stop playing the endless blame games we know so well in Washington and, rather, keep their noses to the grind stone.


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