Barry's Pyrrhic Victory


With the election of Marion S. Barry as mayor of the District of Columbia Tuesday, the ordinary citizens of Washington finally got their revenge on an establishment accustomed to treating them as if they were invisible.

The problem is, the GOP takeover of Congress this week means that the rest of the country may now be about to take its revenge on Washington.

Mr. Barry would have had a difficult enough time getting along with a Democratic-controlled Congress. He is such a divisive figure that even the District's friends on the House and Senate committees that oversee D.C. affairs were wary of his return.

Democrats generally have been sympathetic to the District, though in recent years Congress increasingly has stepped into Washington's affairs as the city's financial and management woes have worsened.

Now that the Republicans control Congress, though, the city can expect some really rough sledding. The District is predominantly black, votes 10-1 Democratic and has not elected a Republican officeholder in more than a decade. So there's no love lost between the city and the GOP.

Moreover, if "Washington" as national power center represents everything conservative Republicans deplore about government generally, the District government and its leaders epitomize for them in microcosm all the evils of tax-and-spend liberalism run amok.

And since Congress has the final say over the District's budget and reviews all legislation passed by the city council, a GOP-controlled House and Senate would find it mighty tempting make an example of the city and use it as a whipping boy to take out all the country's frustrations over crime, welfare, rotten schools and bloated municipal bureaucracies.

Remember: Congress controls the federal payment to the District that the government makes to reimburse the city for its loss of property-tax revenues on federally owned property. By reducing the size of the payment -- or merely threatening to -- a Republican Congress could force the city to lay off thousands of workers, cut welfare and Medicaid benefits, slash services and little by little strip the city of whatever autonomy it presently enjoys.

The attitude of the new GOP congressional leadership was summed up in the comment of incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich last September after Mr. Barry won the Democratic mayoral primary. Mr. Gingrich called Mr. Barry's nomination "a tragic moment for this country" and predicted he would have "an impossible time trying to deal with Congress."

Mr. Gingrich, of course, now is in a position to make his prediction come true. And he's not the only one out for Mr. Barry's blood.

Rep. James T. Walsh, the senior Republican on the House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee, said in September that Mr. Barry's primary victory meant that "any progress we might have made with the District in recent years is gone now. . . . The incredible problems he left behind are obvious. We don't have any basis for trust."

Meanwhile, the ranking Republican on the Senate D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee, Conrad Burns of Montana, indicated how he felt about the District's residents when he recently replied to a racist comment from one of his constituents by saying that living in the predominantly black nation's capital was "a hell of a challenge."

Senator Burns later apologized for the remark, but one has to wonder whether his attitude toward the District and its residents is completely unbiased.

For the moment, Mr. Barry and the District's non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, are playing down the difficulties Washington is likely to encounter in its dealings with the new Congress.

This week Mr. Barry made a show of reconciliation with his Republican opponent in the general election, Carol Schwartz. Meanwhile, Ms. Norton warned that the city needed to make an "emergency reform" of about $300 million in spending cuts before the end of the year in order to remain solvent and avoid a confrontation with the new Republican Congress.

With the District running out of cash, an electorate riven by deep racial divisions and a hostile Congress controlling the city's purse strings, Mr. Barry is going to have his hands full just staying afloat for the next few years. Washington voters may have thumbed their noses at the nation when they elected Mr. Barry mayor. But if he sinks, their city is going to go down with him.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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