Drastic Action for D.C.

Last week Congress took its most drastic step yet to save the nation's capital from its local government. That, at least, is how the framers of the latest District of Columbia rescue package probably viewed their work.

As part of the budget bill assiduously pieced together by Republicans and Democrats and now signed by President Clinton, Washington's city government will get nearly $1 billion extra in federal assistance over the next five years. The federal government will take on a much larger portion of the city's Medicaid expenses, and it will shoulder the city's $4.9 billion in unmet pension obligations.

The city's mayor and council, however, will lose control of nine major municipal agencies, from human services to public works.

Mayor Marion Barry blasted this arrangement as the "recolonization" of his city, which won limited self-rule from Congress 24 years ago. A less loaded analogy would be the receivership that bankrupt, poorly managed school districts sometimes undergo. There, too, duly elected officials are shunted aside in favor of getting the institution back on its feet.

Something akin to that process started in D.C. two years ago with the creation by Congress of a Financial Control Board. The city's problems have eased only marginally since then. One reason, say Barry's many critics on the Hill, is that patronage-minded City Hall too often gets in the way of real reform. Hence the move to put key agencies directly in the hands of the control board, including ultimate authority over hiring and firing of agency heads.

Now it will be almost solely up to that appointed body to show that sound management can be brought to the country's capital - efficient staffing, filled potholes, collected garbage, well-run health clinics, etc.

The mayor, who bears much of the blame for the city's perennial problems, is right: The plan just passed by Congress is a short-circuiting (not his word) of democracy. It's also supposed to be short term, no longer than five years.

During that time, the added federal dollars, the management reforms, and the tax advantages designed to lure businesses and middle-class families back into the city should have a positive effect. And that, ultimately, should mean more to the city's voters than whether their mayor has his hand on every lever of city government.

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