Democracy in D.C.

Dear Jamie,

       On this point we undoubtedly agree: Our city has collapsed. The litany of disasters is numbingly familiar to you (and most SLATE readers). To short-form it: Test scores are low and falling. Crime rates are high and rising. Public housing and foster care are in receivership. Fire trucks, garbage trucks, and police cars are broken down. Water is unfit to drink; roads are unfit to drive on. Etc., ad nauseam. (For more of the litany, see Jacob Weisberg’s ” The District of Calumny.”)
       Here’s the key: The District’s decay is a failure of politics. Home-rule die-hards blame the District’s problems on everything but the District–home rule’s faulty structure, the lack of a commuter tax, pension liability, congressional meddling, etc. The fact is, we–by which I mean you, me, our neighbors, Marion Barry, the D.C. Council, the school board–blew it. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s–at a time when everyone knew that the city was in trouble–Barry, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, and the council used every accounting trick in the book (and some new ones) to hide the budget gap. When this charade ended in 1994, the politicians simply gave up. Rather than cut jobs from the bloated payroll, or shut the law school, or restrict welfare and Medicare benefits, the politicians essentially abdicated. Voters, instead of revolting and demanding sound government, acquiesced.
       This is the dilemma the Republican Congress faced: The city was plunging toward bankruptcy, and no one was doing anything to prevent it. What happens when the elected refuse to govern? What happens when a democracy no longer functions?
       The answer: If the elected politicians won’t act, then find someone who will. You write that “there are no viable solutions without democracy.” The opposite is true in D.C.: There are no viable solutions with democracy. Our elected representatives have proved repeatedly that they lack the gumption to make hard decisions. The Control Board has that gumption. It has already dared to cut jobs and programs in order to prevent default, tasks that Barry and his Marionettes have ducked for a decade. Like you, Jamie, I don’t know that the Control Board and the school czar can fix our decrepit hometown. I do know that our democratically elected representatives cannot.
       And there is at least one reason to hope that the Control Board will succeed: Chelsea, Mass. In 1991, this small city bore a frightening resemblance to Washington. It had a huge budget deficit, rising crime, and an overstaffed, incompetent bureaucracy. Its elected politicians were both crooks (like Barry) and incorrigibles (like Barry). Facing bankruptcy, they refused to cut jobs or spending (like Barry). So the Massachusetts legislature placed the city in receivership. The mayor and city council were canned, and an outsider took dictatorial control of the government. He fired a third of the city’s employees, slashed spending, and balanced the budget. He also reorganized the bureaucracy, modernized City Hall, and improved garbage collection, policing, and road repair. In 1995, the receiver withdrew. Chelsea elected a new council. Democracy and good government have returned. But it never would have happened without the receiver.
       Thanks to the defenestration of Barry, the same thing can now happen here. I am not saying it will. But now it can.