Working as a Capitol Hill lobbyist for the District is a little like being Grace Kelly in "High Noon."
While all the other cities and states around the country are playing Gary Cooper, ready to stand in the middle of the street for the showdown -- over taxes, over grants, over budget cutbacks -- the District would like to be able to slip quietly away without being noticed.
That's because nearly every time Congress focuses on Washington, over which Congress has unique powers, it can take a shot at how the District conducts its business and force it to change its ways. Or members may want to make a point on issues of special concern to them, and D.C. legislation gives them a forum -- to hold forth on abortion, drug abuse, drunk driving or whatever.
In the session of Congress that ended last week, District officials are grateful to have gotten by with a flesh wound or two but no direct hit at what they consider their fundamental prerogatives.
The House had wanted to order the city to stop funding abortions for poor women, but that idea was defeated in the Senate.
The House voted to require that the city award all of its contracts by competitive bidding, in the face of reports that huge city contracts were being awarded on a noncompetitive basis. But in the end, the city passed its own legislation aimed at improving the system, and Congress settled for language saying it wants the District to be fair and honest and accountable to the public -- and reminding the city that Congress will still look over its shoulder.
Those two issues, the most difficult the District faced in Congress this year, were debated as part of the city's fiscal 1986 appropriations bill, which approves the District's budget. House and Senate conferees on the city's budget did tell the District it had to come up with $15 million more than the $5 million it had budgeted for deficit reduction, but they do that every year and city officials accept it as a given.
And of course the city does not mind being given more federal funds, though these are accompanied by directives on how the city must spend the money. This year the bulk of the extra money -- $30 million -- was given for planning and building a new prison in the District, a project the city had opposed for some time. But now Mayor Marion Barry supports the idea, so Congress cannot be accused of forcing a prison on the city this year (that happened last year, when Barry's arm was being twisted up around his neck on the issue).
The conferees also added $150,000 and told the city to do something about its school dropout rate.
As far as what the District actually wanted from Congress, the city accomplished very little this year. Other than the budget, the only D.C.-related bill that Congress passed allows the city to issue tax-exempt revenue bonds before the end of the year for construction projects at three Washington universities.
Without the bill's waiver of the 30-day congressional review period on all District legislation, the bonds would have been held over to next year and could have come under a limit the federal government is expected to impose on such bond sales.
The prospects had looked good for finally getting RFK Stadium transferred from the federal government to the District -- legislation that the city has pushed for years. But last-minute objections by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) kept it from passing the Senate, and the issue is held over until next year.
The House had approved four other bills sought by the city involving the District's judicial system, but none was approved by the Senate. Among them were bills to give the city parole authority over its prisoners housed in federal facilities and to create a new system of jury duty at D.C. Superior Court.
But lack of congressional interest in city affairs by and large does not displease District officials, who know that each time they bring up an issue they risk releasing dormant passions, not always to their advantage.
Looking to next year's session, city officials see trouble brewing in the saloon, and they already are assessing ways of resisting pressure without getting into a brawl they cannot win.
The District this year angered some members of Congress by not raising its drinking age to 21 as Virginia and Maryland did. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), members of the congressional subcommittees with jurisdiction over the city's budget, made it clear they want action on the drinking age next year.
"We're going to have to play this one carefully," said one city strategist. "I'm not sure it a major battle on the drinking age is worth it. It feeds the image that we are out of step."
That strategist said the city might try to get around the issue rather than risk a face-to-face showdown. They might come up with a compromise other than just caving in on the issue, like phasing in a higher drinking age or attacking the problem in a different way.
"We don't want a big confrontation."