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Could D.C. officials have prevented the budget deal’s local bullying?

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It seemed silly at the time. But in the context of last week’s budget deal among President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which imposed unwanted policy riders on the District, it shows the shallowness of political thinking in some local quarters.

The “it” to which I refer is the dispute that erupted among city officials in 2008 over the use of the “No Taxation Without Representation” license plate on the president’s limousine. To recall, in December 2008, WTOP Radio aired a story that noted “local leaders hit a roadblock over the presidential limousine.”

Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton announced that they wouldn’t ask President-elect Obama to put the “No Taxation Without Representation” license plate on his limousine. Norton said that she “didn’t want symbols.”

Our 13-member D.C. Council believed otherwise. All the council members signed a letter to Obama that urged him to use the license plate. Wrote city lawmakers: “As you ride down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Inaugural parade after being sworn in . . . displaying the license plates would send a clear message to the entire nation and the world about your support for this issue and remedying this injustice.”

Of course, Obama did no such thing. But neither did President George W. Bush during his eight years in the White House. And President Bill Clinton displayed the tags on his limousine for only the last two months of his second term.

But, oh, how hot and bothered our local leaders got over the license plate issue. And not just politicians. This week, I debated the license-plate issue with WTOP political analyst Mark Plotkin on Fox 5 TV. Plotkin argues forcefully, and with some cause, that on issues of justice and democracy in our nation’s capital, symbolism matters.

What sticks in my craw, however, is that when it really counted — when the city needed the White House to defend the right of District residents to use our own tax dollars for priorities we deem fit, Obama, in concert with Boehner and Reid, threw the city under the bus.

Gray and Norton didn’t even get the courtesy of a White House call alerting them to the dirty deed. They learned about it through the media.

Why the cavalier treatment? Perhaps it’s because Obama, Boehner and Reid assume that people who cherish symbolism are easy pickings and can be taken for granted.

Or, worse, maybe it’s because Obama believes that the District, which gave him 93 percent of the vote in 2008, is his to bargain away. “John, I will give you D.C. abortion,” President Obama said during the budget dealings, according to a Post account.

But regardless of what the feds think of District residents, the more important question is what do we think of ourselves. After all, we — not they — are responsible for electing council members and the mayor.

The unswerving obligation of all elected D.C. officials is to preserve the right of District residents to govern themselves. Have we put in place leaders of the caliber to do that?

The question is pertinent to the unwanted congressional riders. It’s not as if we couldn’t see this day coming.

Even before the political tsunami swept over Congress last November, District leaders were warned to expect major problems if the congressional gavel shifted from Democratic to Republican hands.

“[I]f the GOP prevails on Nov. 2, congressional intervention is a given,” I wrote. “Gone, too, will be any chance of the city winning full autonomy from Congress over the spending of locally collected dollars.”

But the important point of that column, which apparently fell on deaf ears, was the suggestion that Gray, faced with a Congress bent on meddling in the city’s business, “will have to heavy up his administration’s liaison to Capitol Hill.” Norton, I noted, was a savvy Hill veteran, but she would need help with the new crew coming to town.

Okay, maybe nothing could have prevented the D.C. sellout. Boehner and the Republicans were hell-bent on having their way, and Obama caved. But it’s also fair to suggest that the city’s political and civic leadership should have moved to engage both the Obama administration and the new Congress earlier, and with a greater sense of urgency, to reinforce the political and moral case for D.C. self-government.

Justice for the District can’t be achieved with presidential license plates.

The battle now, as when the home-rule quest was launched before World War II, must be waged on all fronts. And, lest we forget, it never ends.

kingc@washpost.com

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