Garbage-strewn city streets, shabby schools, police cruisers that don't run, and debts that don't get paid have been part of Washington D.C.'s image for too long. This is not just another blighted US city. It's the nation's capital, and it ought to be a model of urban progress.
The reasons why D.C. is, instead, a study in urban failure are many. They include mismanagement in local government. Mayor Marion Barry has done his share of padding the city's bureaucracy and keeping poor tabs on spending over the years, but he has more recently been forced into reform mode. The congressional overseers of Washington's budget have demanded fiscal responsibility. For most of the last two years the most powerful body in city government has been a federally appointed Financial Control Board.
D.C.'s cherished "home rule," granted nearly 25 years ago, has taken a beating. But home rule may have overreached from the start. The city combines a deficient tax base with a set of responsibilities that in any other part of the country would be shared by state government. The federal government pays the city more than $600 million a year to help make up for its revenue shortfalls. But a radical structural change has long been the central need.
The Clinton administration has now come up with its version of such a change. It would swap the current payment to the city for full federal assumption of many city duties, including meeting pension obligations, managing courts and prisons, maintaining roads and bridges, and collecting local income taxes. In this way, a significant burden would be lifted from the city and ongoing reform efforts would have a better shot at success.
Immediate responses to this plan from Congress have been mixed. Some hail it as a needed breakthrough. Deficit-hawks balk at the increased federal spending it will entail. Perhaps the most important voice on the matter is House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He has vigorously backed D.C. reform and renewal, most recently in his speech to colleagues following reinstallment as Speaker.
The president long has publicly called for efforts to save the capital too - even going so far as to support, tepidly at least, statehood for the district - but the current proposal for federal intervention is his first concrete step.
The city needs all the steps being taken in its behalf, from continued fiscal tightening to tough-minded running of its schools. But some meeting of minds between Messrs. Clinton and Gingrich would be particularly helpful. The opportunity for that may be at hand.