In D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's new "my hands are tied" refrain about the limitations of what he can accomplish in office, he often ends by saying, "I'm not complaining, I'm explaining." Well, I, for one, don't buy the explanation that he doesn't have power. I think his powerlessness is more perceived than real. But worse yet, I'm beginning to fear that the refrain may have the exact opposite effect than what the mayor intends. It could hurt the city, with potentially far-reaching effects, by becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let me explain. While Washington is still "the last colony," possessing neither as much power under the Home Rule Charter as the city needs nor as much as it deserves, the fact remains that, outside the budgetary area and the unpredictable federal payment, this government still has more home rule than, say, Montgomery County. For example, Montgomery County cannot regulate insurance, has limited control over transportation legislation and cannot levy personal income taxes without state permission.
While it is true that Congress does have veto power over all city legislation, in a general sense, the relationship between City Hall and Congress is the same as between any municipal government and state legislative bodies, whether it is in Minnesota or Georgia. Now I know this is not a perfect parallel because Congress' power is far broader than that of any state government. On the other hand, in the six-year history of the city's limited home rule, Congress has shown very little inclination to use its veto authority.
One reason is that the city leaders who hammered out the home rule bill laid fairly firm groundwork.Because they didn't want to perpetuate a "plantation mentality" or constantly be second-guessed by the Hill, local leadership persuaded Congress to confine itself to three criteria when considering local actions: Is the action constitutional? Is it legal under the charter? And does it hurt the federal interest?
Congress' single veto of a local bill was the one that would have prohibited the further establishment or expansion of embassy offices or chanceries in two residential areas of Northwest Washington. The State Department, White House and Congress combined their formidable power against local legislators -- because it was felt the law constituted excessive interference with the conduct of foreign relations. And, incidentially, it was hardly a bill of immediate concern to the majority of the city's population.
I'm not saying the District does not need full home rule, but I am saying that there is plenty of power that is not being used by the mayor or the City Council. Even the media has joined in this powerlessness refrain. If the talk continues, it is not inconceivable that Congress eventually will feel free to move into the void the city's leaders keep telling them exists. What has been given also can be taken, you know.
But the problem with the leadership seems also to be how they exercise the power they opt to use. Absent is a broad focus under which narrower, more parochial interests can be fitted. Missing is a perspective on the role of the council and executive, their relationship with each other, with the White House and Congress, and even what it takes to make these relationships work. City Hall does have sophisticated tools and rules, but they're failing to use them to the fullest advantage.
Someone once said that an American president has to grab the job by the neck at the outset and never let go. The same point on a lesser level could be made of the difficult job of being Washington's mayor. Listening to Barry, one gets the impression that he became overwhelmed by the job early in the game.
The mayor is right when he says he has detected "more cynicism . . . more of a defeatist attitude among District residents than he had anticipated. There does seem to be a tendency to "let the elected officials do it." And ultimately we won't get out of our present rut until the people of Washington revive their creative energy and step up again to take the lead.
Meanwhile, I think the mayor and the City Council have to draw a distinction between what they can do and can't do and utilize the decision-making power they have, all the while making certain they neither give away nor legislate away our hard-won gains. "My hands are tied" is a negative refrain that sounds especially flat when it comes from an aggressive, "take charge" mayor.A better tune to solve the problems is, "The city won't get all it fights for, but it won't get anything if it fails to fight."