The end of home rule in D.C.?

March 08, 1995

Slowly but surely, the financially strapped District of Columbia is losing control of its own destiny. Last month an outside auditor declared the city government all but bankrupt. The only reason it has any cash at all is because it hasn't paid its bills, he said. Later reports suggested that a financial control board set up by Congress to oversee the District's affairs might exclude the city's elected officials. In the extreme case, it could effectively revoke the District's home-rule mandate.

Other cities have faced crises and weathered them with the help of financial control boards empowered to set priorities, borrow money and negotiate labor contracts. In those cases the boards were created by state legislatures to make the hard decisions elected officials in the ailing municipalities were either unable or unwilling to make. Though the principle is the same, Washington's case is somewhat different because its problems are more serious and because there Congress plays the role of state government when things fall apart.

In one plan being drafted by Congress, the proposed board would consist of five presidential appointees who would set financial and management limits on the District, including how many workers it could keep on its payroll. The mayor and City Council would have to work within those limits, and if the city exceeded them the control board could impose cuts of its own. The board could also set performance standards for city managers and employees and fire those who did not meet them.

The prospect of a de facto federal takeover of the city is a bitter pill for many Washingtonians, who once looked hopefully toward achieving full statehood. The city's current travails show that statehood was never an economically viable option. Indeed, much of Washington's current difficulty stems from having taken on responsibilities that normally fall to states without having the revenue-raising resources of a state.

Mayor Marion S. Barry seems resigned to a reduced role for city elected officials. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting representative in Congress, has been more of a key player in negotiations over the city's future, but her trump card is influence, not power. She can only be as effective as Congress allows. We hope the new GOP majority does not exploit the problems of largely Democratic-voting Washington to score partisan political points. A saving grace in other financially imperiled cities has come once the crisis was over, when governing power was quickly restored to locally elected officials. That is the model Congress should follow in the District, too.

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