TO AVOID financial catastrophe and enjoy a restoration to fiscal health, the District of Columbia will have to endure some difficult -- and at times painful -- treatment immediately and over the near term. Fortunately, that diagnosis is not under serious challenge by any responsible leader in the city. The newly elected mayor, the council chairman-elect, other public officials and now the Rivlin Commission, share the inescapable judgment that there are no miracle or wonder drugs to help avert the financial crisis that lies ahead.
But agreeing on the severity of the problem is not the same as reaching a consensus on its causes or the recuperative program and treatment regime that must be adopted. Now the stage has been reached at which all of the interests that give life and breadth to this city must join to develop an action program that responds to the immediate financial crisis, and next, to tackle the structural inefficiencies that endanger the District's health over the longer term.
Achieving those ends will not be easy; neither will be the necessary, but difficult task of building a coalition to support a particular strategy for addressing the city's problems. If a plan of action is to have any staying power, however, it must enjoy the backing of a broad range of interests, extending beyond the elected leaders and financial managers in the District building. Reversing the present dangerous course will require the active involvement of the business community, labor leaders, public employees, community organizations and residents. And each will have to be prepared to make certain sacrifices and concessions and to subordinate its self-interests if the city is to avoid the fate of Philadelphia, New York City and other jurisdictions. To do less -- or worse, nothing -- will guarantee the District's insolvency. And that most assuredly will bring on what we hope there is a consensus against: Draconian reductions in city services, massive layoffs, a costly federal bailout and inevitable incursions by the Congress into the District's already limited authority for self-government.
Extraordinary acts of leadership, political courage and statesmanship will be required in the weeks ahead. But the Rivlin Commission summed up the situation well: "the District's financial crisis cannot be solved with a 'business as usual' approach. The fiscal challenges of the next five years demand innovation and flexibility. Old solutions -- a little cut in programs here, a small tax increase there -- will, quite simply, fail." There is no reason for this city to fail and every good reason for success.