Hundreds of District of Columbia residents are about to lose their jobs as a result of run-amuck regulators in the District government.
Instead of fighting to save these jobs for the city, District officials are throwing them away, literally sweeping off the streets as many as 1,000 of our poorest neighbors.
The soon-to-be unemployed are street vendors. They sell everything from hot dogs to hot watches in what has to be one of the worst jobs in Washington. Only a pushcart away from poverty, vendors eke out a living outdoors in all kinds of weather -- hawking umbrellas when it rains, scarves when it's cold and anything they can peddle any other time.
Not any more. The city has decided to ban the sale of most manufactured merchandise by street vendors, to severely restrict vending locations and to cap the number of licensed vendors at about 4,200. That's a thousand fewer than now are licensed. No license means no job. That is the most serious, but perhaps not the most scandalous, implication of the new vending regulations that go into effect May 15.
You'd think the winds of deregulation blowing through the Capitol and the White House would be discernible at the District Building. But some weird weather pattern seems to protect D.C. officials from the storm of free-market philosophy raging on either side of them. Utterly out of touch with that political reality, the District has written page after page of vending rules that demonstrate why oppressive regulation has gotten a bad name.
Along with throwing thousands out of work, the city has drafted suffocating vending regulations that go well beyond any reasonable concept of protecting the public. If people weren't losing their livelihood, it would be easy to make fun of rules that go so far as to spell out the size of cart wheels and the color scheme of pushcarts.
Wheels must be no more than 32 inches in diameter, the city has decided. That dimension is based, no doubt, on empirical evidence documented by PhD consultants that 33-inch cart wheels threaten public safety.
Polished walnut and scrubbed pine may be the decor du jour for gourmet grocery stores, but they are forbidden by District regulations for vending carts. Carts must be made of pressure-treated wood and must be either "stained and varnished" or painted according to the color scheme spelled out in Section 512.11, to wit:
"The basic colors of all vending vehicles, stands and carts shall be one predominate color (80 percent or greater) with optional accent colors. Color combinations shall be organized in the following manner:
(a) All vending stands shall use the canopy as the means of displaying the primary accent color;
(b) The color matching mechanism used to ensure compliance with the appropriate color schemes for all vending carts, stands and vehicles shall be the Grumbacher Color Computer (color wheel) manufacturer No.B420."
Metropolitan police officers -- who have primary responsibility for enforcing the vending regulations -- will have to start packing color wheels in order to see that the law is observed. Can't you see a D.C. cop twirling his color wheel like a six-gun and nailing an outlaw fruit peddler for off-color canopy tints? "Okay, Hombre, your accent colors are two shades too bright. You have the right to an attorney. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. . . . "
Vendors are not even entitled to a Miranda warning under the D.C. regulations. That's one reason why a lawsuit challenging the rules has been filed by the Service Employes International Union. Violating the record-keeping provisions of the rules "shall result in immediate seizure, without notice, of the vendor's license," the rules say.
A heroin dealer selling white death on 14th Street has more rights than a vendor caught without sales records. Dope peddlers and prostitutes are the street merchants the city ought to be cracking down on, but instead the police will be sent out to arrest people for selling illicit T-shirts on the sidewalk.
Yes, vending clothing will be against the law come mid-May. At the behest of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the city banned the sale of most everything but handmade items and food. That provision is a transparent effort to protect store owners from sidewalk competition and is clear evidence to vendors that they are victims of an economic power play.
The Board of Trade's role in writing the vending regulations ought to be an embarrassment to the Washington business community. Ignoring its longstanding opposition to government interference with business, the Board of Trade authored the most onerous of the vending regulations and used its clout to get them adopted.
You can bet that if the District tried to tell store owners how to paint their buildings or put a cap on the number of shoe stores or restricted the merchandise stores could offer, the Board of Trade would scream. But the business community has said nothing about the excessive regulation of vendors by the District government.
City officials started out tackling legitimate concerns about the failure of vendors to pay sales taxes and the sidewalk congestion and litter created by unrestricted vendors. If the city had stopped after fixing what needed fixing, no one could argue. Instead, the regulation-writing turned into a vendetta against vendors, possibly the most unpopular occupational group in the city.
Street people get more sympathy than street vendors. Even a cocktail-party poll of Chardonnay-chugging liberals will reveal few friends of vendors. Most of us are glad to be saved the embarrassment of stumbling over some immigrant peddler when we're on our way to an expense-account lunch. That's a lousy reason to legislate away someone's job.
City officials may talk about the importance of employment to the District, but when the choice was between saving jobs and restricting vendors, the jobs lost.
If anyone is to be thrown out of work as a result of the vending regulations, it ought to be the people responsible for writing them. City Hall is obviously overstaffed if the mayor and his minions can find nothing better to do than protect the public from gaudily painted pushcarts with oversize wheels and take work away from vendors struggling for self-respect through self-employment.