LAST YEAR, D.C. CONGRESSIONAL delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton liked to tell the story of her meetings with residents of the nation’s capital, lately a site of high and rising crime rates, failing schools, collapsing infrastructure, and impending municipal bankruptcy. The burning question on residents’ minds was, Should I stay or should I go? “If you’ve stuck with us this long,” she said, “don’t give up now.” Help is on the way, Norton was telling her discouraged constituents. And last week, the cavalry finally made plans to move in, with the announcement of a plan for a federal takeover of many city services.
But the help comes with a surprising twist. For when you combine the new federal initiative with the recent takeover of the city’s school system and budget by a congressionally appointed “control board,” you have a new reality: the end of “home rule” in the District of Columbia.
Under the provisions of home rule, adopted a quarter-century ago, Congress delegated much of its constitutional responsibility for the nation’s capital to an elected, citywide government that has, in the years since, proved staggeringly corrupt and inefficient, employing more than 10 percent of the city’s population in a giant nest of patronage.
In 1995, when the city faced a gigantic budgetary shortfall of $ 722 million (in a municipality with fewer than 600,000 residents), Congress created a financial control board to whip things into shape. The control board’s most dramatic act was to chuck out the entire elected D.C. Board of Education and fire the superintendent of schools. They were replaced with an appointed board of trustees and a retired three-star Army general. Residents, in whose interest home rule was presumably extended to the District, took one look at the control board’s expulsion of officials they had elected and . . . cheered.
But after careful examination of the city’s expenses, liabilities, and future, the control board became discouraged over the prospect of an entirely local plan for reform. The question, simply put, is this: Can the District survive on the strength of its own resources?
For years, D.C. politicians have been answering that question with a loud no: The feds ripped off the District from the beginning with a lousy deal that has granted the city a mere $ 660 million in one lump-sum “feder- al payment” each year. But unlike other cities, they complain, the city gets no help from a state government. Their solution: Congress should make the District of Columbia itself a state called New Columbia. As local fenders say, “D.C. Statehood Now!”
The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow would be a much-fantasized commuter tax, so that the District could collect money from workers who live in Maryland and Virginia. And statehood would allow local pols to broaden their ambitions to two new Senate seats, a governorship, and a voting slot or two in Congress. The statehood argument is a bit hard to take coming from the very politicians — especially once, present, and future mayor Marion Barry — who allowed their government to run amok in the first place even as they played any card, including the race card, to attach blame to everyone but themselves.
The control board, by contrast, does have credibility. And while it came up with a plan Norton dismissed as a non-starter — namely, that what the District needs is another billion in annual revenue from Congress — it galvanized the administration into action. Hillary Clinton has made D.C. her new cause, and in a speech two weeks ago, Newt Gingrich also argued that special efforts must be made on Washington’s behalf.
The new plan, largely the brainchild of Clinton budget director Franklin Raines, is a proposal for a federal takeover of the “state” functions of D.C. government. The federal government would assume control of the D.C. prison system and pay for city courts (which would still be locally managed). It would increase its share of the city’s Medicaid expenses from 50 percent to 70 percent. It would collect taxes, pay for road and infrastructure projects, and finance the D.C. budget deficit as the control board brings it down to zero. And it would assume responsibility for billions in unfunded pension liability. Though the $ 660 million federal payment to the District would end, the new plan would cost $ 339 million more over five years than the federal government is spending now.
As for the matters that remain local — schools, housing, police, libraries, parks, social services — they are and will be subject to the unsentimental supervision of the undemocratic control board or the courts. (It appears that the board will soon follow its seizure of the school system with a comparable seizure of the gigantic and incompetent police department, an action that will lead to . . . more cheering from residents.)
Republicans appear apt to go along with Raines’s plan, even though it violates the ideal of devolution in its confidence that federal control is superior to local control. One early dissent came from GOP senator Lauch Faircloth, who wasn’t briefed on the plan before the White House unveiled it even though he is the incoming chairman of the Senate D.C. subcommittee. But a few days later, his feathers presumably unruffled, Faircloth was making conciliatory noises.
To be sure, Republicans will try hard to add specifically conservative experiments to the plan when it is turned into legislation — tax breaks of some kind and school choice for the District, which passed the House last year but was derailed by the Senate.
When they heard the federal government was, in effect, seeking to disenfranchise them, D.C. residents stood as one to . . . cheer again. Once you’ve experienced “home rule,” it seems, the benevolent despotism the founders had in mind for the District of Columbia looks pretty good.