D.C.'s Salvation

As Americans turn their attention to who should sit in the White House next, the city surrounding the presidential mansion continues to slide toward bankruptcy and decay.

Washington, D.C. should be a source of pride to all Americans, with its storied monuments and its impressive halls of power. But that pride is heavily diluted by the presence of garbage-strewn streets, schools too decrepit to open this fall, and open-air drug bazaars - all just a few blocks from the Capitol Mall.

The blame for that urban disintegration is usually heaped on the city administration, headed by a mayor, Marion Barry, with his own history of drug abuse and crumbling political charisma. But that's too easy. Washington, D.C.'s problems also have a lot to do with the unique governmental structure it has been saddled with for two decades.

In 1974, the city's voters opted for "home rule," ending decades of direct government by Congress. To city residents, most of them black, this seemed a declaration of independence. But it came with lots of strings. The District is still dependent on Congress for a yearly appropriation that funds much of its operation, and it has to pay for many services, such as Medicaid, that other cities support through grants from the federal government. Its tax revenues are pinched by congressional constraints on the types of levies it can use and by the prevalence of tax-free government and diplomatic properties.

That said, the mayor's diligent larding of the city bureaucracy with his supporters, combined with the recession of the late 1980s, certainly did much to precipitate the torrents of red ink. But over the past year Mr. Barry has striven to reverse his course. He has had little choice, whipped on by a presidentially appointed Financial Control Board and by the realization that the political times have indeed changed. A chief ally in these efforts has been House Speaker Newt Gingrich, no less. But the Speaker's desire to be a co-savior of the capital, and thus show that Republicans do care about inner-city decay, has ebbed of late.

Back in March the mayor was applauded in Congress for his plan to cut 10,000 city jobs. Progress toward fiscal responsibility, however, has been slow. The outflow of middle-class taxpayers - both a cause and a symptom of the city's problems - is hard to reverse. Ideas to lure people back through tax incentives - such as the 15 percent income tax cap for D.C. residents, proposed by the city's delegate in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton - deserve close consideration. GOP vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp is another proponent of tax breaks for the city. Bold action is needed.

But the boldest action could be the most difficult to effect: a radical reorganization of the city's government. One approach would be to get rid of home rule and allow Washington - except for the core federal buildings - to be incorporated into the state of Maryland. That would mean a much less burdened and actually more powerful municipal government. This will take intense selling, since many in the black majority continue to see home rule as a matter of racial pride.

Another approach is to keep home rule but do away with the mayor's dominant role and bring in a city manager. Many cities of comparable size have found this form of local government more efficient and less hobbled by politics.

Congress and the city's leaders need to get down to these basics. Washington - with schools and other sectors of city life withering away for lack of funds and services - can't simply budget-cut its way back to health. It needs an overhaul of government that will unleash new revenue sources and encourage efficient, civic-minded management.

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