D.C. Government at the Brink


At a press conference Wednesday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich joked that the District of Columbia's financial problems are so bad he'd gladly give most of it back to Maryland and let the governor here deal with it.

Thanks, but no thanks. Washington presently has a budget deficit of $722 million, or 22 percent of its 1995 operating budget. That's a staggering load of debt. It's worse than the mess New York City got itself into back in the 1970s and worse than the crisis that almost drove Philadelphia under in 1990.

Under the Constitution, Congress is responsible for overseeing Washington's affairs. It can't evade that duty now just because the city is staring at bankruptcy.

Mr. Gingrich was only half-joking, actually. Though he made noises about being willing to work with city officials and the district's non-voting representative in Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the message he was sending was: He who pays the piper calls the tune.

In other words, forget about home rule. Or, to paraphrase another colorful politician: Get over it.

For Washingtonians who elected Marion Barry their mayor as a way of thumbing their noses at the powers-that-be, the medicine Mr. Gingrich has in mind surely will be a bitter pill to swallow.

Ms. Norton was one of the few district politicians to speak out early -- and courageously -- on the city's fiscal crisis. But the solution she is offering is almost as impractical as giving Washington back to Maryland. She wants Congress to grant the District "commonwealth" status, like that of Puerto Rico. "Commonwealth" status, Ms. Norton argues, would exempt District residents from federal income taxes, which she thinks would attract middle- and upper-income residents back to the city and increase its revenue base.

That's a terrible idea. It invites abuse by the very wealthy, who would use nominal residence in the District as a convenient tax shelter. And since District residents wouldn't send money to the federal government in the form of taxes, Congress would be even more reluctant than it is now to send money to the District for things like roads, mass transit, Medicare and Medicaid. Puerto Rico sharply limits such entitlements for that very reason.

Much as the new GOP majority may dislike the place, Washington is Congress' home town. If Mayor Barry and his City Council can't put their house in order, Congress will just have to step in and do it for them -- even if that means a bailout requiring tight federal discipline and control.

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