Toward the end of its meeting 10 days ago, the D.C. City Council enacted -- for the eighth time since early 1978 -- an emergency bill to keep the city's power to license private colleges intact for another 90 days.
The action attracted little attention. The way in which the District of Columbia's legislative body operates, emergencies are routine. The council has officially declared 88 of them so far this year.
It took formal declarations of emergencies to set the current real estate tax rate, to establish boating safety rules for the Potomac River during the summer season, to close streets and alleys on the site of the future downtown convention center, to raise the mortgage interest ceiling about 11 percent and to put a moratorium on the conversion of apartments into condominiums.
In some cases, as with college licensing and the condominum moratorium, the council acted more than once, keeping emergency laws in effect for a sequence of 90-day periods while permanent legislation was in the pipeline.
Now the practice has been called into serious -- and perhaps fatal -- question. Superior Court Judge George H. Revercomb has ruled that the council acted illegally when it invoked its emergency powers to enact the condoninium moratiorium twice. But he delayed the effect of his ruling to permit the city to appeal to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Fearing the Superior Court ruling would set a precedent that might upset all multiple-passed emergency bills, major suppliers of mortgage funds froze lending in the city, causing city officials to turn to Congress for extraordinary relief.
Now Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D.-Mo.) whose Governmental Affairs subcommittee is handling the relief measure, is insisting upon putting a curb on the council's emergency powers.
Eagleton wants to limit the council to passing a single emergency measure on any one subject, with the law to remain in effect for 180 days -- double the present life of such legislation.
At a hearing Wednesday, Major Marion Barry and City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon both opposed Eagleton's plan to tie the restriction to the pending relief measure, but did not oppoe the 180-day proposal outright. t
The issue is rooted in the city's Home Rule Charter, which was enacted by Congress and went into effect in 1975.
Under the charter provisions, the council is required in the normal course of passing laws to consider and vote upon each bill twice, then to send it to the mayor for his approval or veto.
In the mayor signs a bill, it then is sent to Congress for a review period that last 30 legislative days. The definition of a legislative day is such that the review period may continue for at least six weeks, and sometimes several months.
Congress has the power to overturn a council action by adopting a resolution of disapproval. It never has done so.
The charter also provides a way for the council to act swiftly, sidestepping or deferring the congressional review. If at least two-thirds of its members -- nine out of 13 if all present at a meeting -- vote to declare that an emergency exists, the council can pass a bill, and it becomes law for 90 days just as soon as it is signed by the mayor.
Often, as in the case of an increase in the mortgage interest ceiling, the emergency bill is a stopgap, putting some or all of the provisions of the permanent measure into effect pending completion of the congressional review.
An Eagleton aide said this week that in nearly five years of existence, the council has passed 334 emergency bills and 305 pieces of permanent legislation.
So far this year, the proportion of emergency bills is even higher. Council records show that 88 emergency bills have been passed compared with 52 pieces of permanent legislation. Of the 52 permanent bills, 21 replaced stopgap emergency measures.
The Emergency Education Institutional Licensure Regulation Act passed by the council for the eighth time last week demonstrates one use of the procedure.
According to William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), chairman of the council's Government Operations Committee, the creation of the University of the District of Columbia resulted in abolishing the old D.C. Board of Higher Education.
One of the old board's functions, the licensing and regulation of private colleges, many of them branches of institutions located in other states, was transfered to a new D.c. Educational Institution Licensure Commission. w
The commission was charged law with writing a set of regulations to carry out its functions. But, Spaulding said, the congressional appropriations committees refused to provide funding the city had requested for the commission.
To keep existing controls intact while a hired consultant drafted new rules, Spalding first asked the council on March 7, 1978, to enanct 90-day emergency legislation. It did so. This was followed by similar action three more times in 1978 and four times in 1979, most recently last week.
What would happen if the law were to lapse? "I could go out and declare myself to be an institution of higher learning." Spaulding said, "and start selling PhDs."
The emergency resolutions adopted eight times by the council also say any lapse would endanger the existence of the affected colleges as well as "jeopardize receipt of federal moneys and cause hardships for students and staff."
James M. Christian, chief lawyer for the city council, described the college licensure measure as "a classic case of a financial decision by Congress that has forced legislative decisions not of our own choosing."
While defending the council's need for emergency powers, he said he "can see the need for greater prudence in its use . . ."
The council got a warning in 1977 on the use of emergency powers from John R. Risher Jr., then the city's corporation counsel. He said the council should adopt stricter standards for declaring emergencies and expedite its time-consuming normal legislative prodcedure, which often takes several months, to avoid extensions of emergencies.
Risher's successor as corporation counsel, Judith W. Rogers, now is in the postion of defending the council in the appeal of Judge Revercomb's ruling in the condominium moratorium case.
If the council's right to enact emergency legislation more than once is removed, her office said in a brief filed with the Court of Appeals, "the mischief that could result . . . is readily apparent . . . Those regulated by the expired emergency measure . . . are now in a position to jeopardize the public interest byengaging in the very conduct at which that measure was aimed . . ."