The fancy footwork that the D.C. Council used to outmaneuver the mayor in this spring's budget debate was all but missing as the lawmakers scrambled to wrap up their legislative work before their summer recess.
Instead of nine members marching in lock step, at legislative meetings during the past two weeks, council members hesitated or balked at getting behind initiatives that some members tried to push through as emergencies. The emergency bills included a package of crime-fighting initiatives that would add more police officers to city streets and require sex offenders who live in the District to register with law enforcement authorities.
The authors of the bills were appalled that their colleagues did not readily support the initiatives, while activists and advocates were outraged that the council would take up serious issues in such a hasty manner.
The council's uneven performance suggests that the legislature still has much work to do to improve the way it functions. But one council member argues that it is just further proof that "the legislative process is never pretty."
"The council is jelling," said Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who deflects criticism of the 13-member body. "We still have some things we need to do. We're not perfect yet, but I am proud of the membership."
The group that took its place in the council chamber in January was the most diverse--demographically and politically--in the city's history. Seven members are white, the first time blacks have not held a majority of the seats; six were elected within the last three years; and two are Republicans.
Observers expected this council to be more assertive and less predictable, particularly in overseeing the city's finances and management, than previous councils.
The council startled its supporters and critics in the spring when it drafted and shepherded through the largest tax cut in the city's history. The package of cuts, which totals nearly $300 million, initially was opposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the D.C. financial control board. But council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David Catania (R-At Large) managed to hold together a nine-vote majority to ensure passage of the tax cuts, which will reduce personal income, business and property taxes in the next five years.
But since that dramatic vote in May, the council has initiated no efforts that have generated as much public discussion.
Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) tried to stir interest in his legislation to create a sex offenders registry in the District. He issued news releases promising council action on the measure at its July 6 meeting, only to have his colleagues delay action until last week.
"I don't know what their problem was," Brazil said of his colleagues. "It wasn't because the bills weren't ready. . . . It seems to have worked out well in the end."
Not everyone agrees. Joshua Wyner, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center, criticized the council for approving that measure and nearly two dozen other pieces of emergency legislation during the last two weeks.
"It shows that as a council, they didn't plan their legislative work program as well as they might have," Wyner said. "They are not organized in a way to enable them to gather the information they need to make well-considered decisions. They are just making decisions too quickly."
The Appleseed Center released a study this year that criticized the council for its reliance on emergency legislation to conduct its business. Emergency measures, which require a two-thirds vote of the council, permit the council to enact laws for a 90-day period without going through the congressional review process.
Critics argue that the emergency measures, which do not require a public hearing, deprive residents of an opportunity to comment on or influence the legislative process.
Brazil and Cropp argued that the emergency legislation for the sex offenders registry was necessary to protect the public and to make sure the city did not lose federal grants associated with the sex offenders registry program.
Cropp said much of the emergency legislation was thrust in front of the council by the mayor's office for such things as contract approvals or confirmation of appointments. She also argues that most of the emergency measures do not fall into the category of major or significant legislation. The chairman bristles at the "suggestion that the council didn't do its work and had to pass emergency legislation."
Council member Phil Mendelson (D), who was elected to an at-large seat in the fall, has criticized his colleagues often for readily approving emergency measures. He said both the executive branch and individual council members share the responsibility of curbing the use of emergency bills.
"Marion Barry was very good and deliberate at getting things done at the last minute and jamming the council," Mendelson said. "One way to deal with a tardy executive branch is to say 'no' a couple of times, and the executive will realize that they can't do it that way."
Mendelson agrees that most of the legislation the council takes up on an emergency basis is not substantial. Still, he said, "My feeling is that we've have go to work harder and instill a self-discipline that encourages and increases public participation."
And even when the council makes a smooth move, as it did with the tax-cut package, it is not as easy as it looks, Mendelson said.
"The legislative process is never pretty; most members would say it's pretty ugly," he said, noting that council members haggled privately among themselves about the tax cut plan. "I'm always amazed when people feel like the council or the Congress or any legislature is being unusually cantankerous, because they usually are cantankerous. That's just the reality."