A Stillborn 'Mayor for Life'?


Washington may have got the worst of both worlds in last Tuesday's election: a divisive and discredited Democratic mayor-elect, Marion S. Barry, and a Republican-controlled Congress eager to make an example of him. Compounding the situation: The District faces a $300 million budget deficit this fiscal year. If something isn't done about it quickly, Mr. Barry could well have cause to regret his stunning metamorphosis as Washington's "Mayor for Life."

The nation's capital is on the brink of insolvency. But Congress has final say over the District's purse strings as well as over all legislation passed by the city council. It also sets the size of the federal payment the government makes to the District to compensate it for the loss of property tax revenues on federally owned land. Without that payment, the District can't hope to balance its budget.

That puts the new GOP Congress in a position to dictate to a large degree how successful Mr. Barry's tenure as mayor will be. Mr. Barry would have had enough problems dealing with a Democratic Congress, which recently has tried to crack down on the spending binges of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and the D.C. City Council. But at least the Democratic majority was somewhat sympathetic to Washington's problems.

A GOP Congress could be a different animal. Under House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, Congress will have a big ideological ax to grind, and the District -- symbolized nationwide by Mr. Barry -- could easily become lawmakers' favorite whipping boy. District officials had better brace themselves.

The District's non-voting delegate to the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said the city faces rough sledding on Capitol Hill unless it can come up with $300 million in budget cuts before the end of the year to balance its books. Ms. Norton, who has to argue the District's case in Congress, wants to ward off Draconian measures if the House and Senate committees that oversee District affairs decide to impose the GOP majority's budget priorities on the Barry administration.

District voters may have seemed desperate for change when they threw out the squeaky-clean but inept Mayor Kelly for a "redeemed" Mr. Barry. The changes in store under a GOP-dominated Congress, however, could easily turn out to be a lot more sweeping than they bargained for.

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