Doing business in the District and complying with the regulations and whims of multiple bureaucracies can be one big guessing game, if not a hassle, as several recent examples suggest.
It doesn't matter, it seems, whether one develops office buildings, drives a taxicab, or hawks trinkets from a vendor's stand. Sooner or later, he's subject to paying the price for a bureaucratic goof or some irrational response to a problem, real or perceived.
Although it would be difficult to make the case--as some companies in Maryland have attempted to do in that state--that the District has an adversarial approach to business, the regulatory climate in the city leaves much to be desired.
When threatened by nuisance legislation or regulatory bottlenecks, most local industry groups can usually count on the Greater Washington Board of Trade to intercede on their behalf. And the board's track record in influencing legislative and regulatory matters affecting its members is impressive.
Many firms, however, aren't covered by the board's business-advocacy umbrella, either because they aren't members of the organization and don't have access to its vast resources or because their problems are isolated from the mainstream of commerce. In other instances, it may be a case of one individual's dispute with the bureaucracy.
The taxicab industry is a good example. Reacting to a few complaints from passengers claiming they were inconvenienced by cabbies who picked up additional fares, the D.C. Public Service Commission slapped a new restriction on the industry.
To many persons, cabbies are just a band of ill-tempered, moonlighting hustlers who are bent on ripping off the public. The description certainly is applicable to some, but every group has its 10 percenters. And tough but reasonable regulations properly enforced can weed out the offenders.
To say that a cab driver can't stop to pick up another fare if a passenger objects is an arbitrary form of restraint of trade. What's more, the PSC's ruling is certain to cut into the legitimate income of a large segment of the industry.
To be sure, the city's cabs are part of an industry. And that industry is a vital part of the mass transportation system. The Federal Energy Administration (forerunner to the Department of Energy) declared as much in regulations adopted during the 1973-'74 energy crisis.
Indeed, operating under those regulations at the height of the fuel shortage, the District was able to provide a special gasoline allocation for taxicabs because they were deemed vital to the city's transportation needs. A decade later, the PSC decides to put a limit on public transportation.
Then there is the imbroglio over the height of Metropolitan Square, the new 12-story, office-retail complex built by the Oliver T. Carr Co. at 15th and G streets NW.
The Secret Service is in a dither because the building's 130-foot height poses a potentially "serious" threat to White House security. For that reason, the Secret Service has asked District officials to hold up construction on the second phase of the complex, which would fill in the block around Garfinckel's.
More recently, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) called for a complete investigation by the National Capital Planning Commission to determine why its members weren't told of the Secret Services' concerns, which were first expressed as early as 1979.
You can't put up a building that big in this town without getting approval from someone. So how could the Carr Co. have spent months getting approval of plans and construction permits to build a $100 million-plus project that the NCPC, the Secret Service and D.C. officials knew would overlook the Treasury Building and the White House?
More than four years have passed since the Secret Service first expressed fears about the unobstructed view of the White House grounds from atop the first phase, which was completed this year. And, in all that time, neither a description of the complex, architect's plans nor construction cranes called bureaucrats' attention to a security threat that might have been posed by the building's height.
It's possible that no threat was perceived because the upper floors and rooftops of at least three other buildings in the vicinity provide commanding views of the White House grounds as well as the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin.
But because federal and D.C. bureaucrats failed to communicate with each other, or at least with the Carr Co., the developer's plans for completing the second phase of an approved project may be in jeopardy. If that is the case, the developer's costs will soar through no fault of his own.