On Tuesday, D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke chewed out Alphonse G. Hill, deputy mayor for finance. On Wednesday, he tore into James Palmer, the director of the District's Department of Corrections. And on Thursday, the chairman cast a skeptical eye on a top Department of Human Services official.
For Clarke, who has let it be known that he is considering a run for mayor this year, the hearings last week on Mayor Marion Barry's proposed fiscal 1987 budget have provided a useful platform for challenging Barry's top aides on matters of policy and budget.
Clarke's aggressive role in the budget process, according to Clarke and his aides, reflects the chairman's conviction that the legislative branch ought to exercise power over the budget process. But others see something else at work as well.
As one council staff member put it, "Dave's different this year."
Clarke, like Barry, is up for reelection this year and may well face a challenge of his own should he decide to seek a second term as council chairman. Until recently, Barry seemed nearly invincible as he prepared to seek a third term as mayor. But scandals and other problems besetting the administration have, in the view of some, left Barry vulnerable to a challenge.
Some view Clarke's stepped-up criticisms of the administration as a means of testing his political muscle while keeping open all options. Clarke, however, has said his decision on whether to run for mayor will not hinge on Barry's perceived vulnerability on ethical issues.
James Christian, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, observed that Clarke has little to lose by stepping up his scrutiny of the executive branch now and may be "setting the stage for taking advantage of anything that might happen in the next couple of months."
"I think there could be legitimate concern on his part as to how the government is functioning. He feels that it is his responsibility as the coequal branch to really probe it," he said. "At the same time, you can't lose sight of the fact that this is an election year. If he wants to capitalize on any drop in the mayor's popularity, he can't be hurt by this sort of questioning."
Clarke is not the only council member who is asking tough questions of the various agency officials who have gone before council committees to talk about the budget. However, as council chairman and head of the committee of the whole, which has its own budget office, he is perhaps in the best position to challenge figures and facts.
Last year, Clarke was not so aggressive, said the council's only Republican member, Carol Schwartz (At Large). The chairman was "more low-key," she said, and the budget review process was "more like a love fest than a realistic budget process."
As a newcomer on the council last year, Schwartz voted against the fiscal 1986 budget, and she said Friday she is determined this year to cut what she calls a "bloated" proposal by the mayor.
"I don't care what Clarke's motivations are, I am glad to see more City Council members asking the hard, tough questions that should be asked of this budget," she said. "Last year, I was the only one out there who was saying we ought to cut $100 million from the budget. It seemed to be a lonely world."
Clarke's profile during the early stages of the council's 50-day budget review process reflects a subtle seesaw effect that is built into the city's governmental calendar.
On Jan. 31, the mayor submitted the budget to the council and, in the days that followed, Barry basked in the appreciation that flows from intended recipients of $2.4 billion in government spending. Now, as the budget hearings get under way, it is the council's turn in the limelight.
For Clarke, who has not let slip whether he will challenge Barry or seek reelection as chairman, the budget review period is a dual-purpose vehicle. Even as he moves to assert a vigorous check on the mayor's power in the budget process, he can position himself politically in the remaining days before final decisions are made as to who will run for what D.C. offices.
Clarke's decision could be the cue for two council members who are also thought to be considering a run for council chairman or mayor: John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4).
Meanwhile, it is head-bashing time in the council chambers as Clarke aggressively questions Barry's top aides.
Hill was on the receiving end Tuesday when Clarke criticized him for a host of alleged shortcomings, including a failure to discipline an aide, the decision not to include funds in the budget to retire the general fund accumulated deficit and, finally, alleged miscalculations in spending.
Hill emerged from the hearing looking furious.
The next day, corrections chief Palmer received some fire from Clarke, who charged that the city appeared to be abdicating to the federal government its responsibilities in selecting the site for a new prison in the District.
On Thursday, Clarke asked Lonnie Mitchell, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, "Are ministers being paid $50 to preach against drugs?" The program in question, Mitchell explained to Clarke, paid ministers to train other ministers about drug problems and prevention.