TO REGARD the D.C. Council's new assertiveness as just a thinly disguised ploy by its new chairman, John Wilson, to grab personal power at the expense of incoming mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, is to miss a more fundamental and overdue development in District politics. The council, for the first time, seems ready to fully exercise the powers it has held since Congress enacted the Home Rule Charter.
Given the council's past tolerance of city government excesses, its complicity in the current fiscal crisis and the undue deference it showed the chief executive -- at least until Marion Barry's political fortunes nose dived earlier this year -- one might think that the 13-member body had little if any clout. In fact, even when Mr. Barry reached his political zenith, the council had the power -- if it had chosen to use it -- to stop the Barry administration in its tracks. Instead, too many members simply huffed and puffed, accepted the perks he bestowed and, at the end of the day, just went along. One notable exception was John Wilson who, as chairman of the council's finance and revenue committee, repeatedly challenged the mayor on budgetary and tax matters.
Well before Mrs. Dixon's emergence as a serious mayoral candidate, Mr. Wilson launched his own campaign for council chairman, pledging to restore balance to the council's relationship with the chief executive. He promised to restructure the ground rules and called repeatedly for stronger council oversight of District programs and activities.
The council took a giant stride toward that end Friday by adopting most of Mr. Wilson's recommendations to reorganize the council and the way it conducts its business. The decisions to tighten anti-filibuster rules, to establish more committees for governmental oversight -- with each member heading one -- and to require that legislative proposals come with financial impact statements all make good sense. Allowing Mr. Wilson's Committee of the Whole to have responsibility for budget matters should also sharpen the council's focus on the city fiscal problems.
He didn't win on everything. About three years ago, Mr. Wilson threatened to fly to Disney World rather than deal with a proposed budget and tax plan he didn't like, and that may be one reason why the council refused to allow him single-handedly to control the council's legislative agenda. Still, having the council perform as a co-equal branch of government -- which is Mr Wilson's objective -- is vital to self-government and ultimately in everyone's best interest.