August 26, 2018

The end of home rule

Speech by Sam Smith at the conference of DC New Democracy, February 25, 1995 

Whatever it was that was optimistically called home rule is now gone. It died when our mayor offered to give much of it away. It died when our congressional delegate first suggested trading it for tax relief, and then proposed turning it over to a tyranny by accountants.. It died when much of the media — led by the Washington Post — decided that democracy was just an experiment that had failed. It died when our city council was unable to propose a single workable alternative and when we found ourselves without elected officials who would speak for us.

Most of all, it died last November when the lobbyists and influence peddlers of Gucci Gulch slid from the corridors of Congress into the majority seats on the floor of the House and the Senate. When Newt Gingrich walked through the front door of the Speaker’s Office, democracy and justice walked out the back.

Now it is proposed that the functions of the mayor and council be replaced by an appointed control board — a meritocracy of the best and the brightest. I have heard, for example, Robert McNamara’s name mentioned — yes, the same guy who brought us the automated battlefield of the Vietnam War. And investment experts from New York — maybe some from Goldman Sachs fresh from advising the Mexican government. And local accountants and management consultants — perhaps the ones who told the city to build a sports arena but forgot to say that it wouldn’t fit on the proposed site or that what Abe Pollin wasn’t going to pay would cost the rest of us hundreds of million of dollars. Or people like Alice Rivlin who have yet to figure out a way to reduce the Pentagon budget below Cold War levels. Or maybe they’ll just keep it simple and use the list of names undoubtedly already provided by the Post’s non-profit subsidiary, the Federal City Council.

Eleanor Holmes Norton and others say that giving direct power over the budget would not end home rule. Maybe that’s why we have so much trouble with finances in this city. We don’t understand what a budget is. The budget is the government. It is, as the sociologist Rudolph Goldshied, well put it, “the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies.”

A financial review board — limited to auditing, approving contracts and vetoing overall spending plans — is one thing. And, if chosen by our own officials a wise and prudent move some of us urged long ago. But a control board reduces the mayor to the level of a department head and the council to that of a super neighborhood commission.

But let’s be honest. The fault doesn’t all lie with Congress, even if it did approve every line of every budget it now reviles. Even if in the private world of business, it is those with ultimate responsibility — in this case Congress — who get the blame and the boot. Even if the financial control board represents yet another attempt by Congress to jettison responsibility it refuses to give to the city and is unwilling to assume itself.

But it is also true that for the entire time of home rule and before, local officials have let the budget and bureaucracy get out of hand, and used every accounting gimmick known to modern capitalism to avoid dealing with financial facts. It is also true that high and low officials have lied, stolen and cheated leaving us to pick up the tab.

But now another truth. Over the years I have become something of an aficionado of urban corruption in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. I can tell you a simple fact: DC has miles to go. The DC government is to waste and corruption as Pat Robertson is to sex. He may engage in it, but probably couldn’t ‘t teach you much.

Let’s remember that Orange County just lost one billion dollars on a few bad investments. No one is talking about taking away its home rule. Let’s remember that the current cost overrun on Boston’s third harbor tunnel — this is federal money now — is ten times that of the current DC deficit. And no is taking way Boston’s home rule.

I don’t excuse Marion Barry or the city council or Sharon Pratt Kelly at all. I don’t even feel sorry for them any more. But let’s stack their $720 million deficit up against what Congress has wrongfully denied us. Say $250 million a year to provide a fair federal payment in lieu of service fees and taxes. Or the $300 million annually we’re losing because we’re not allowed to impose a non-resident income tax. Or the $300 million annually in local taxes Congress said that Fannie Mae doesn’t have to pay. Or the $70 million in sales taxes we lose by not being able to charge military or diplomats. All that before we add in the billions Congress has cheated DC workers out of by not funding their pensions.

Or look at it another way: shortly after Barry first took office, there developed a combined current and past deficit of more than $500 million. Adjusted for inflation, this would be a deficit $120 million higher than today’s. Yet nobody panicked. No democratic rights were taken away. It was a different time, though, with a different sort of Congress and a different sort of President.

It is important, as we view the wreckage of decades of hope and effort, to remember that we are not dealing with just a local problem. In this town of bureaucracy and civility, in which the most awful events are discussed with bland dispassion, it is easy to not notice that DC’s story is a national and international one. The other day an official at the South African embassy told John Capozzi that “We are very interested in your struggle for liberation.” Even after all his country has been through, this diplomat saw more significance in DC’s problems than many of us do.

The city’s basic status conundrum was noted near the beginning of its existence by a shrewd observer who warned of the dangers of mixing small and large concerns. Ever since, DC has been hostage to the ebb and flow of national tendencies, often getting the worst in bad times and having that much further to go in the good ones. We enjoyed some of the fruits of Reconstruction after the Civil War but when that collapsed. so did the progress we had made. We found ourselves for the first time unable to vote for anyone for a whole century. When America got dreams of empire, its ambition was reflected in the neo-imperial architecture of government buildings from the Lincoln Memorial to the Federal Triangle. When World War II broke out, Washington became the chaotic, crowded hub of a country united in its cause, even turning over the Mall for temporary buildings.

When the war was over, Washington early felt the force of economic pressures that would eventually leave many American cities in ruins. We had the country’s first major urban renewal project in Southwest. We were told we could not survive without freeways stabbing the urban heart and we had to fight them off. And we watched the suburbs bloom as government housing funds drifted outward.

Then with the war on poverty and the civil rights, peace and self-determinations movements, DC regained vibrancy and hope. This town was one of a handful — such as Berkeley and Madison — where, as a matter of course, you expected something important to happen. And it often did.

With the Vietnam War sucking life out of that hope and vibrancy and with the murder of Dr. King, there followed an national urban insurrection. And in the wake of that insurrection, DC was shortly granted first an elected school board, then a non-voting delegate and finally an elected mayor and council. For once, someone in power was actually afraid of this city.

Now the shroud has fallen again. And could we really expect more local decency from a Congress that proposes to do away with school lunches across the land, that is repealing even the social reforms of its own Richard Nixon? For better or worse, our fate is inexorably linked with that of other Americans. We not only symbolize that fate, many of our citizens will suffer it to a disproportionate degree.

It was recently reported that the number of welfare recipients here had gone up 20% in three years. This does not represent poor families moving into DC to enjoy what the Post calls “Cadillac” Medicaid benefits. No, these are citizens who have fallen into poverty as a result of the most disastrous national economic policies since the 1920s.

These are more victims of the political stampede of the 1990s, in which many Americans have been convinced that if they don’t immediately flee from simple justice, compassion and common sense, then first their government and then they themselves will become bankrupt. Leading this stampede are the largest corporations and investment firms and their politically indentured servants. Many of these firms increasingly owe their livelihoods to profits earned abroad. To the stateless corporation, a strong nation is an obstacle, an annoyance, propping up high standards of living with demands for better pay and social conditions. The Reagan-Bush-Clinton era has brought the third worlding of America, an attempt to make us accept lower pay and lower expectations in every aspect of our lives. This era has already been remarkably successful at reducing wages and weakening labor unions. Now it proposes to destroy the social programs that have protected our citizens for decades. In the cause of “global competition” we have become an undeveloping country and the new welfare recipients in DC are part of a growing line.

So as we start the struggle again, let’s make it not only our own fight but also part of what must be a national reclamation of decency and justice. Let’s make our cause one with all the other Americans who are victims of the self-righteous, self-aggrandizing yuppie yahoos who have seized — and are now selling off — our national assets to better the profits of their campaign contributors.

We are, after all, experts at what happens when democracy is sacrificed for a balanced budget, when the poor are punished for not being successful, when ethnic prejudice hides behind the cold numbers of a financial worksheet, when access to fairness is privatized, when the dream of a cooperative commonwealth is smashed with the cry, “I’ve got mine, Jack,. You’re on your own.”

If we are once again to be a full and unmitigated colony, let’s return to our obstreperous, vigorous ways of those times before they sedated us with a weak elected mayor and council. We were more alive when we were in revolt than we have ever been since becoming appeased. Keeping in mind Albert Camus’s dictum that the one sin we are not permitted is despair, let’s make DC both a symbol of what the rest of the country stands to lose and the hub of those who refuse to let it happen..