AMERICANS can easily forget that Washington, D.C., is not only the nation's capital, with all the public monuments and political drama that denotes, but a complex urban community as well - with more than its share of problems.
For the past year, those problems have been kept in focus by the determination of some House Republicans, notably Speaker Newt Gingrich, to solve them. A financial control board was set up by Congress to oversee city finances - hundreds of millions in the red. Mr. Gingrich named a committee to suggest a plan of salvation for the city.
This could have alienated Mayor Marion Barry, since the congressional action threatened to eclipse cherished "home rule." But Messrs. Barry and Gingrich formed a pact of sorts to attack the city's problems and turn the D.C. disaster into a shining example of urban rebirth.
The Speaker's ardor for that task has cooled, or at least grown less vocal. But the mayor has pushed ahead, last month proposing a budget-cutting plan that appeared to part ways forever with the old Marion Barry approach to governance. The mayor who blithely "grew" the local bureaucracy during the 1980s now projects a 25 percent reduction in staff, widespread privatization of services, closure of many schools, sharp reductions in Medicaid - all geared to achieve a federally required balanced budget for the city by 1999.
Barry calls the austerity measures a "vision," and proclaims it his own. But the Speaker, and the pricey consultants Gingrich cajoled into working with the mayor, might claim a bit of ownership too.
What should happen now is a little more cooperation from Congress in passing the appropriations that help fund D.C. government (and make up for revenue loss caused by major tax-exempt US and foreign-owned property in the district). That may lead to a showdown on a school-voucher plan (public monies for parent-chosen private schooling), - the only House Republican-inspired D.C. innovation that's still alive. Others, such as enterprise zones, have been quietly shelved as too expensive. The voucher plan, attached to the appropriations bill, is a stopper for Mr. Clinton and his allies in Congress.
Hurdles along the road to fiscal stability for Washington are likely to be many. The mayor, for example, wants a $650 million federal loan to tide him through the initial downsizing and rebuilding phase of his plan. That won't be easy to come by. And at some point the city is going to have to find the means to rebuild crumbling schools and other facilities. Beyond money concerns, the city's budget-cutting plans face strong opposition from those who think the cuts could portend even worse days for the city.
It's by no means clear how the mayor - who managed to salvage his public life after a conviction for cocaine use - will salvage a city government that can't pay its bills or deliver adequate services. But a step toward fiscal order - and a foundation for rebuilding - has been taken, and with a little help from concerned members of Congress, others could follow. Americans who want to take pride in their capital should hope they do.