The Washington Post
D.C. home rule takes an unnecessary hit
Congress’s decision to overturn the District’s criminal-code reform was hardly the lowest or most intrusive intervention in the city’s 50-year home rule history. This week’s rejection pales, in severity, to the historic 1995 move by Congress and President Bill Clinton (D) that effectively suspended home rule and created a five-member financial control board to oversee city finances. The control-board era lasted until shortly after 1998, when former chief financial officer Anthony Williams was elected mayor.
The authority of Congress to act, both then and now, is self-evident. The reasons for intervention, however, were vastly different. And therein lies the message. As Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a Black comedian of the mid-20th century, once advised: Do what you want, but by all means, know what ya doing.
In 1995, most city leaders and Congress knew what needed to be done, and why.
The rub was in how to do it. Elected officials such as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), at-large council member (and later council chair) Linda Cropp (D) and Ward 3 council member Kathy Patterson (D) recognized that the city was staring into a financial abyss. Resolving the District’s accumulated deficit, which exceeded $700 million, was crucial.
A combination of operating deficits, cash shortages and mismanagement across the government found the city facing bankruptcy. Creditors were going unpaid. Wall Street had lowered the city’s bond rating to “junk.” Residents and businesses were migrating away. The federal government’s operations would be affected if the District government couldn’t provide such basics as street and traffic maintenance, public safety and services for tourism.
City lawmakers might have groaned publicly, but they understood what Congress was doing. It was in both federal and D.C. interests to act promptly, though it meant reducing the elected D.C. government’s autonomy. Faced with a much-diminished role, Mayor Marion Barry Jr. put a good public face on the takeover, issuing a public statement, “We are going to have the best-run city government with the best citizen services in the nation.” Barry would go on to engage in verbal warfare with the control board. But there was general agreement that at the end of the whole belt-tightening, bureaucracy-trimming, retooling ordeal, and after the shift of certain D.C. responsibilities to the feds was over, congressional intervention was needed to save the day.
So, with one bold legislative swipe in 1995, all decisions with respect to the annual budget, financial plan, or borrowing and spending in the District’s name fell under control board authority.
Congress even created the position of chief finance officer to manage the city’s financial operations — a function still in place today.
Back then, federal intervention wasn’t an option; it was a necessity.
Was that also the case this week in Congress’s blocking the D.C. Council’s criminal-code overhaul? Equally important, did the council really know what it was doing?
The answer to the first question is easy for this self-government supporter. No, a public federal slapdown of the criminal-code reform wasn’t necessary. The bill was not scheduled to take effect until 2027. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), whose veto of the measure was overridden by the council, was preparing amendments to fix offending provisions. Council member Brooke Pinto (D), who now chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, which oversees public safety legislation, had agreed to hold hearings. There was plenty of time, opportunity and certainly motive to revise the reform package.
Besides, the city’s elected leaders should decide their own laws, which presumably reflect the will of D.C. residents. Their views should not be replaced by the will of out-of-town politicians on high.
That said, it’s hard to imagine that the council knew what it was doing. Or at least that it fully understood its relationship with the mayor, the courts, the justice system and Congress with respect to its duty to protect society and deliver justice. Consensus decision-making should include more than criminal justice experts, academics and architects of reform schemes. The city officials need to give full time and equal attention to the people in communities who must live with the laws drawn up in council chambers — such as advisory neighborhood commissioners and grass-roots community leaders.
Bowser has promised to present new public safety legislation to the council, separate from her suggested changes to the criminal-code revisions, that will give the council the chance for a do-over. It also presents an opportunity for Pinto to set a course for criminal justice hearings that include witnesses well beyond the usual pro and con law-enforcement intelligentsia. Listen to people who live with crime.
It’s long past time for an independent and objective evaluation of the city’s multimillion-dollar approach to crime-fighting. How well — or poorly — are prevention and enforcement programs working? What are the true consequences for breaking the law? The council needs to get answers — not anecdotes, promises or wishful thinking.
Pinto has no greater challenge than to lead a fresh top-to-bottom legislative evaluation of the city’s criminal justice system, without fear or favor. Armed with that knowledge and confident in the system’s operation, the council and mayor can once again advance their crime legislative agenda to citizens and Capitol Hill.
And if they’re not on the same page this time, they should just stay home.