The woman who hawks $9.99 sundresses on K Street, the guy on Connecticut Avenue who sells framed covers of old magazines, and the vendor outside Scholl's cafeteria with a table full of Washington Monument salt and pepper shakers are in trouble.
Washington's richest and most powerful businesses are trying to drive them off the streets.
In a David and Goliath confrontation--with Goliath claiming to represent the good guys--the Greater Washington Board of Trade is pressing the D.C. City Council to crack down on street vendors.
According to the Board of Trade, street vendors are a menace--defying the law, robbing the city of taxes and threatening legitimate business.
According to the vendors, hawking T-shirts to tourists is a tough enough way to make a buck without being tied up in red tape, taxed to death or regulated into extinction.
The Board of Trade is clearly the one with the clout in this fight--the voice of the business establishment and the source of the really big money in District of Columbia politics.
The vendors don't have anyone representing them who is as articulate or influential as George Washington University's Vice President and Treasurer Charles Diehl, spokesman for the anti-vendors.
Diehl testified recently that the Board of Trade wants to outlaw most general merchandise vending entirely, severely restrict locations for remaining vendors, impose strict record-keeping regulations, step up government enforcement of vending rules and make vendors pay $1,000 up front before they set up their stands.
To Diehl the $1,000 is "a modest fee"--less than it costs to join a country club--but to a small-time vendor like "Muffin Lady" Faith Collins who sells home-baked goods at 20th and L streets NW, that's a lot to gamble on starting a business.
Food vendors able to come up with the $1,000 will be allowed to stay in business if the Board of Trade has its way, but virtually all general merchandise vending would be banned.
"The Board of Trade believes vendors should be permitted to sell only handcrafted goods, food which is intended to be consumed immediately, and perishable cut flowers," Diehl told a hearing on vending regulations proposed by the Mayor's Vending Task Force.
Board of Trade officials insist they are not trying to put out of business vendors who compete with Board of Trade members who own stores, but the group's position paper on vending leaves little doubt that is the goal. "Vendors should not be permitted to sell their merchandise within 100 feet of any fixed-location business selling similar merchandise," the business group demands.
Also advocated: no vending adjacent to or across from parks, no vending on both sides of the street on the same block, no vending on the same side of the street for two blocks in a row.
Mugging and prostitution might seem more menacing street crimes to some taxpayers and reviewing multimillion dollar contracts more vital than looking for nickels and dimes, but the Board of Trade insists tough vending regulation is needed "to assure fair competition in the marketplace."
Diehl offered two reasons for the Board of Trade's attack on the city's smallest businesses: Vendors ought to collect sales taxes and pay for city services just like other businesses, he argued. Limiting what and where vendors can sell would restore what he called "the original thrust" of vending in the District.
The Board of Trade may have a point on taxes. Vendors don't charge sales taxes and they should. They also ought to pay some sort of license fee for using the city's sidewalks and streets.
Vendors, however, aren't the only ones getting a free ride on city services. The next time Diehl testifies about vendor tax breaks, someone ought to ask him how much property tax George Washington University pays for police, fire and other services from the District.
The City Council also ought to ask whether the revenue to be collected from vendors is enough to justify the massive package of regulations. Board of Trade officials admit they don't have any figures to show how much revenue the city could collect from vendors. And they offer no cost-benefit analysis to show that the taxes collected would pay the cost of vending regulation.
Nor can Board of Trade spokesmen explain the origin of "the original thrust" that prohibits vendors from competing with bigger, more influential businesses.
The origin of push carts can probably be traced back a couple of thousand years to the bazaars and marketplaces that existed before there were shopping centers, main streets and vending regulations. There is, of course, plenty of historical precedent for big companies using their political clout to run small competitors out of business.
Before the City Council swallows the Board of Trade line on vendors, the council members ought to ask the board about some good old Republican business principles. What ever happened to deregulation, supply-side economics and the free marketplace? Are those just phony arguments to be used when it's convenient?
The proliferation of street vendors is the supply side in action. It is a simple, pure example of the free market, a place where somebody with nothing but a few dollars and a dream can become a capitalist.
Why not let the free market work? Why shouldn't the city give a break to struggling entrepreneurs who are willing to stand in the hot sun all summer selling T-shirts?
Nobody from the Board of Trade wanted to face such issues on the record last week. Nor did they want to be quoted on the most embarrassing question that ought to be asked when the biggest businesses in town launch an attack against vendors: Why don't you pick on somebody your own size?