It is not often that members of Congress stay in the House chamber to hear a colleague talk about how much trouble he has had building a garage.
But when House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) took to the well to detail his frustrations in trying to get a variance and building permit from the District government to build a garage at his Capitol Hill town house, members not only stayed - they listened and hooted and cheered in sympathy with his tale of woe.
"I was willing to take my turn, but I will tell you," Michel said, addressing D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, "it really gets to be somewhat degrading to have to go through this kind of a prolonged process simply to get that kind of a permit. Is this how you promote economic development and civic improvement?"
The derisive atttude that members displayed during the discourse, made during consideration of the District's fiscal 1987 appropriations bill, may have more significance than might at first appear.
As the District's annual budget bill went through the House this year, members of Congress had more negative things to say about the District, and more substantive proposals for changing the way the city does its business, than it has had in years.
Language in the appropriations bill blasted the District on the issue of corruption and alleged mismanagement, raised questions about the District's residency requirement, complained of inadequate parking and included a two-paragraph gripe about the city's inability to better control a gypsy moth infestation.
In both House and Senate this year, members are escalating rhetoric and directing threats to the District on what Congress will do to its funding if the city does not raise its drinking age from 18 to 21 for beer and wine, as all but seven states in the country have done under congressional pressure.
While the House blocked an attempt to kill new city legislation on insurance for persons who test positive for exposure to the AIDS virus, it quickly adopted a strict amendment barring the District from using city funds for abortions for poor women.
Just before Michel's speech, the House voted 230 to 176 to cut $10.8 million from the $425 million federal payment recommended by the Appropriations Committee, the first such reduction approved by the House in six years.
Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.), ranking minority member of the House District Committee, announced that he had voted for the cut in funding "because I am so fed up with the D.C. government" and the way it had treated Michel.
McKinney, who in years past has spoken passionately on the House floor to protect the District's prerogatives on both legislative and money matters, later in the debate voiced his disgust with the city's failure to get started building a prison despite Congress' having appropriated $30 million for it a year ago.
"What good does it do us to fight drugs, to fight prostitution, to fight all the evils of any city if we run a revolving jail scenario, because the prisoners are in charge of the prisons: No. 1 -- witness [the recent] Lorton [disturbances] -- and are in charge of the city council, No. 2," McKinney declared.
That remark was made during consideration of an amendment by Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.) to shift $1 million out of the city's $2.4 million arts commission fund and put it into fighting drug trafficking.
"We have a major drug problem in Washington, D.C. We need to conduct a major war on drugs in Washington, D.C.," Walker told his colleagues.
Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, countered Walker's arguments by saying the city's police department already had requested and received a $10 million increase to fight drugs, calling Walker's proposal "very cosmetic."
That amendment was beaten back 229 to 183 after a lengthy debate in which House District Committee Chairman Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) and others argued that arts and humanities programs would help keep the city's children away from drugs.
But right after that, the House approved an amendment to restrict abortions, similar to one that caused city officials grief last year until they saw the proposal defeated on the Senate floor and dropped in conference.
While Congress for years has routinely added language to appropriations bills -- including the District's -- to prevent federal funding of abortions except where the mother's life is at stake, individual states and the District have been able to use their own revenues for this purpose.
The amendment, offered by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), was adopted 44 to 24 by a division vote of those present on the floor at the time, and opponents did not ask for a roll call.
The Senate last year defeated the same restriction in a 54-to-41 vote, with prochoice senators trying to keep the debate focused on home rule prerogatives rather than the volatile issue of abortion itself.
Advocates of both sides say it appears the prochoice forces have the edge going into the Senate.
Regardless of the outcome on that issue, the city recently has found itself itself being told more and more what to do by a Congress for which the home rule argument does not appear to be going as far these days as it once did.
Courtland Milloy is on vacation.His column will resume when he returns.