Home rule, the sacred cow of District politics for 11 years, is facing new threats of being roped in by federal officials unhappy with the city's performance on several fronts.
The latest challenge, and one of the bluntest, came in a statement last week by Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.), ranking Republican member of the House District Committee, who has prided himself on being a friend of the city.
McKinney is angered by the city's new interstate banking law, which he and the chairman of the House Banking Committee think went too far in allowing banks from other parts of the country to do business here. They fear it could create a haven for banks to get into the insurance business and insurance companies to get into the banking business, enterprises strictly regulated under federal law.
Time, or rather the lack of it, the congressman said, was the only thing that kept Congress from overturning the law -- as it has the authority to do during a 30-day congressional review period that applies uniquely to District-passed laws. Congress has overturned only two city-passed laws in the home rule years, and amendments Congress passed to the home rule act in 1984 made it somewhat more difficult to get a congressional veto of city laws.
Maybe too difficult, McKinney now says.
The congressman accused city officials, in essence, of thumbing their noses at Congress, daring it to step in, taunting the beast behind its self-legislated bars. This could prove dangerous, an obviously angry McKinney warned darkly.
"The level of home rule that has been achieved to date can best be described as a very delicate balance which permits a unique local government to peacefully coexist with a preeminent federal government," McKinney said in a statement issued last week as the banking bill was about to become law with the expiration of the review period.
"Recent developments lead me to believe that the next decade of home rule will be characterized by efforts to prevent the city from overstepping its authority by taking actions which infringe on a legitimate federal interest."
There have been several examples recently of the city having to forfeit control and policy-making on specific local issues to other entities. U.S. District Judge June L. Green a few weeks ago ordered the appointment of a "special master" to run the city's prison system.
U.S. Secretary of Housing Samuel R. Pierce designated one of his top people at headquarters to get the District's troubled housing department shaped up after the city failed to manage its public housing properly.
Other cities have had special masters, and other cities have had direct federal involvement imposed on public housing. But while these changes are not an erosion of the city's home rule authority per se, any perception that the city government cannot run itself properly fuels arguments for more oversight.
D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke sees the problem not as a home rule matter but rather as a measure of whether the mayor is doing his job right. "The issue is one of whether the Barry administration has control of what is going on" in the city, he said recently.
For his part, Mayor Marion Barry denies there has been a loss of control and claims to enjoy the new access that his housing department officials have to top federal officials. Barry also says his relations with Congress are just fine. When he was lobbying for the airport transfer bill recently, he put in calls to at least 15 senators, and all of them called him back the same day or the next, the mayor said.
"If they didn't respect me and home rule, I wouldn't have had my calls returned," Barry said.
But others are not so sanguine about city-federal relations.
D.C. City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who chairs the council's committee on housing and economic development, was at odds with McKinney over the banking bill and said the bill was not flawed.
But before that conflict arose, and before McKinney's statement last week, Jarvis had voiced concerns about how recent management problems in the city would affect home rule.
"The bottom line is, unless the City Council exerts strong oversight, Congress will step in and exert control," she said.
McKinney suggested last week that Congress find a way to exert its influence over the city short of outright rejection of an entire law through the cumbersome disapproval method.
It may be that nothing will come of this. But city officials have learned to their regret in the past that attempts to thwart the will of a determined member of Congress can backfire.