Democracy in D.C.


       Thanks for your thoughtful letter. It’s good to go beyond the two ritualized positions that shape this debate: Either you hate Marion Barry, welcome congressional micromanagement of the District, and ignore that pesky democracy question; or you stand with Barry to the end of his days, consider congressional takeover the culmination of a long-standing sinister conspiracy, and ignore the devastating erosion in local living standards.
       I’m proposing a more nuanced position. D.C. faces three separate but interwoven crises that require attention: a self-inflicted management crisis; a structural fiscal crisis; and a crisis of democratic and constitutional legitimacy. There will be no technocratic quick-fixes here by MBAs jetting down from New York: The District needs to be reimagined and reinvented.
       Let us not waste any more breath on the virtues and vices of the takeover. It’s a fait accompli. Everyone now must hope that the Control Board realizes the management and bureaucratic improvements it is seeking to make.
       But these management reforms, even if they work, will not solve the fiscal crisis that I fear you pass over too quickly. The ban on reciprocal income taxes; Congress’ veto of a residency requirement for D.C. cops, firefighters, and other government employees; Congress’ distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in local tax breaks to favored private institutions; the non-taxability of most local land–these conditions are more than talking points for misty-eyed home rule advocates. They cost the District more than a billion dollars a year, and no city in the country–no matter how well managed–could support itself under these conditions. So local taxes keep rising, the middle class flees, and the city becomes more deeply divided between rich Barry haters and the desperate poor vulnerable to his increasingly hollow calls for unity.
       The feds are finally stepping up to the plate on the pension liability and other responsibilities, but we need a thoroughgoing debate on how to pay for the federal city which, as Rep. Morella said in voting against statehood, belongs to all Americans. If so, we all have to take responsibility for it.
       By the same token, America’s citizens who live in America’s city must enjoy the benefits of American community, the first and foremost being equal citizenship. Will you join me in denouncing the current lack of voting representation in Congress as unconstitutional, an affront to the principle of one-person-one-vote? Do you agree that there should be an expert panel on how to make District residents full members of the polity? These questions grow ever more urgent as Congress reasserts itself as the District’s “state” government. Recall that when Massachusetts reclaimed Chelsea, it had the character of the people taking over one level of their government with another: Chelsea’s state legislators were involved in the decision. The District was taken over by other people’s representatives, which explains much of the outrage in the city.
       Nor will the question of local democracy go away. My little sister is starting school three weeks late, not because of the elected school board that was deposed last year but because of the Control Board and its “school czar,” Gen. Becton, whose first promise was to open the schools on time. The parents I know are saying that it might not be much better with the electeds in charge, but it certainly couldn’t be much worse–and at least they’d have someone in power who bothers to return their phone calls.