Schmoke Takes on Congress

May 15, 1992

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants no part of a cozy consensus between the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress in dealing with Los Angeles and the urban crisis it illuminated. He said as much in a private meeting Wednesday with House Speaker Tom Foley, asserting that anything less than the declaration of a national emergency permitting the shift of funds from defense to domestic needs would amount to "a fraud and a sham." Then he went public with his harsh complaints, telling Baltimore community activists yesterday that lawmakers were playing "cotton-candy politics" with America's troubled big cities. "These people just don't get it," he said.

Mr. Schmoke's remarks reveal a widening gap between mayors charged with the nitty-gritty job of running city hall and Washington legislators trapped by deficits and partisan deadlock. Their differences may be underscored tomorrow when tens of thousands of urban activists are due to converge on the nation's capital in a "Save Our Cities; Save Our Children" march sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Mayoral lobbying and pressure tactics may yet force House leaders to draw the line on the issue of guns or butter. That is precisely what Mr. Schmoke proposes. Unless Pentagon funds are released to the cities, the Baltimore mayor contends, Democrats will be making a lot of proposals that can't be implemented. He adds that the mayors have little interest in just adding to the deficit because the amount of money would be limited and the Democrats would again be open to charges of big-spending fiscal irresponsibility.

The Schmoke initiative hits at where the Democratic leadership is weakest. Earlier this year, Democrats sponsored a bill designed to tear down the "firewalls" in the 1990 budget agreement that prevent the shifting of funds from the Defense Department to domestic purposes. As it happened, the Democrats could not even muster a simple majority, let alone the two-thirds vote needed to override a promised presidential veto.

Clearly, Mr. Foley does not want to go through that ordeal again. Ever the realist, he knows his colleagues have just voted for a big defense bill rather than jeopardize home-district jobs. And, as the speaker told the mayors, he does not want to raise expectations to unrealistic heights because there is no hope of overriding a Bush veto.

But to Baltimore's chief executive, that is precisely why he decries another Washington deal. He considers the choice between defense and the cities a serious and legitimate political issue that needs to be developed. Between 1980 and 1990, the federal share of city budgets went down 64 percent, exacerbating urban decline.

We understand Mayor Schmoke's impatience and frustration. Our fear is that confrontation at this moment could make U.S. cities more incendiary without really raising prospects that they will get more new funding than is already in the works.

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