WASHINGTON -- The Nation's Capital is a town of ever-floating trial balloons -- ideas hoisted aloft by politicians to see which way the wind is blowing, and whether it will sustain a controversial notion or move.
The latest one -- Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's scheme to combat the city's rampant violent crime with the use of the District of Columbia National Guard -- has been deflated though not altogether shot down by President Clinton. After the hits he has taken on the use of American troops in Somalia and Haiti, he plainly doesn't want the responsibility of personal involvement in the local mayhem.
In advising Kelly that the law does not permit him to delegate to her the power to call out the Guard, Clinton has essentially passed the buck to Congress by saying he backs a change in the law and urges its "prompt enactment." But such a proposal is certain to run into sharp resistance, particularly from legislators who oppose statehood for the District, which itself would automatically convey that power upon the governor of the proposed state of New Columbia.
Responding to mushrooming cries for help from the city's most troubled, drug-infested neighborhoods where most of Washington's record 382 homicides have occurred this year, Kelly made the mistake of floating the idea as a trial balloon without adequately preparing her own City Council for the bold move. As a result, she is being criticized there, as well as among the city's business leaders who fear the city's already threatened tourism would be dealt a severe blow by the presence of uniformed, gun-toting National Guardsmen on the streets. The fact that most of the violent crime does not occur in parts of the city most frequented by tourists does not diminish that concern.
Many Washingtonians well remember 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson called out the National Guard to cope with widespread riots and fires triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The sight of the Guardsmen with some of the nation's most revered monuments as a backdrop was particularly chilling, and the city never quite recovered from a reputation as a danger zone for visitors.
In the intervening time, the spread of drug-dealing in certain inner-city neighborhoods, and the accompanying gang wars, brought Washington the unenviable label of "the crime capital of the United States," which is precisely the reason Kelly was moved to propose such a drastic step.
But the civil liberties issue involved was well-illustrated several years ago when Ross Perot proposed sweeps by police through drug-trafficking communities in Texas and encountered stiff opposition from groups concerned about invasions of privacy and usurpation of due process of law.
In the most troubled areas of Washington, neighbors have been pleading for the city government to take emergency action, and in those areas Kelly's idea does not seem so far-fetched or threatening in terms of civil liberties. But a precedent of a president authorizing the mayor of the federal city to call out the National Guard would unnerve others in more peaceful parts of this and other major cities.
Even Washington's police chief has expressed alarm at the prospect of armed Guardsmen roaming the city's streets. He says they are not trained for urban police duties.
Kelly is now saying that she did not envision the Guardsmen functioning in that fashion in large numbers, but rather would have used them in a variety of administrative roles to free up more of the District's very large police force for foot and car patrol.
A handful of Guardsmen in fact has been detailed to the District for nearly three years for such purposes, including directing traffic at roadblocks.
One thing Kelly has accomplished, however, has been obtaining greater attention to the problem at the White House.
She has won meetings with high administration officials to discuss what help the feds can give, short of her trial balloon.
And while it won't end the killing, it does indicate she is trying to do something more in response to the clamor from fearful, and fed up, Washingtonians.