"At the start of the hearing, [D.C. Council member Jack] Evans said he believed that the Republican Congress would look more favorably at spending the District's surplus on a tax cut than on social services, as some council members and activists have suggested."
-- The Washington Post, April 27
Turns out, Evans (D-Ward 2) was on the money. His tax plan, coauthored with David Catania (R-At Large), has drawn nothing but "attaboys!" from Republicans in Congress. However, as we were reminded this week, there are limits to the esteem in which our council members and D.C. residents are held on the Hill.
For proof, consider Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, chairman of the Appropriations D.C. subcommittee and a D.C. tax-cut proponent. The Texas Republican has been heard carping about the council's pay, knocking the balanced consensus budget crafted by city leaders and condemning the idea of District residents' having voting representation in Congress.
And yesterday, the House passed a measured pushed by California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter that will convert the initials "D.C." into "Dodge City" by letting District residents keep guns in their homes. If any council member thought that tax cuts would earn the District lasting congressional acclaim and respect, Hutchison and the House put that crazy notion to rest.
Hutchison is something else. When asked by WTOP's Dave McConnell about the pending court case to secure D.C. voting representation in Congress, Hutchison let fly. Opposed to giving the District of Columbia a vote in the House or Senate? "Absolutely. Absolutely," she declared.
"Because this city is much smaller than many cities and states all over the country, and I think that would be an overrepresentation," she said.
Hutchison's declarations are within her rights as a senator. But she shouldn't be surprised if they are met with bewilderment and resentment in this city.
Like Texas, the District of Columbia helps fund the federal government. Its residents also defend the nation abroad. The District reportedly pays higher per capita federal taxes than citizens of 48 states. But unlike residents of the Lone Star State, District citizens have no vote in the House or Senate on life-and-death decisions or on how taxes are levied and spent. So the senator should forgive Washingtonians for failing to understand how they would be "overrepresented" if their country were to treat them as it treats all other Americans.
In a similar vein, Hutchison doesn't like the D.C. Council's salary levels and wants to cut back their pay, which she states is $92,000 (see today's Letters to the Editor). Before the senator starts whacking away, she might weigh a few facts.
Only three council members -- Catania, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) -- draw salaries of $92,520.
Three other members -- Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) -- waived pay increases, electing to keep their current salaries of $80,605.
Six members -- Sandra Allen (D-Ward 8), Harold Brazil (D-At Large), Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) -- also are paid $80,605 annually. They won't be eligible for increases unless they seek office and are reelected in 2000. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, who is not permitted to hold an outside job, is paid $102,520.
(There is the separate issue of outside pay. Three members -- Jarvis, Orange and Chavous -- make more than $100,000 in outside incomes. Three others -- Brazil, Evans and Catania -- draw between $37,000 and $75,000 in non-council employment. Only seven of the 13 council members are making a go of it on their council pay. But, really, that's the District's business and not Hutchison's, since D.C. voters, not the feds, are paying the freight.)
She's down on congressional representation and the notion of letting voters handle the council pay issue. She also wants to undo the way the D.C. financial control board, the council and Mayor Anthony Williams intend to pay for the nearly $300 million tax-cut package.
The control board is Congress's agent in the city, especially on fiscal affairs. If Hutchison opts for throwing out the city's debt restructuring proposal for one of her own, she might as well throw out the financial control board, too, since the board, a competent body, also shaped and signed off on the deal. The senator should back off.
Truth be told, concern about the city's debt service burden is justified. Similar worries have prompted many residents desirous of tax parity with Maryland and Virginia to be equally worried about the timing and magnitude of the proposed tax cuts.
Unlike the council or Congress, those citizens were influenced by last year's D.C. Tax Revision Commission report, which concluded that "there is no evidence that suggests tax policies were to blame" for D.C. population losses in the 1990s. The city lost population all right, but principally low-income households. Middle-income households actually grew in the city between 1990 and 1996 -- and they are the households most sensitive to income-tax rates. Moreover, those who left the District went to Maryland, not Virginia, which has the lower income-tax rate, the commission said.
True, many fled. But most left because of quality-of-life concerns -- crime, poor schools, lousy and costly city services, and embarrassment about living in a city subject to national and international ridicule -- not taxes.
Hutchison and the council probably won't believe this, but loads of residents (of which I'm one) favor making the District income- and business-tax rates competitive with Maryland's and Virginia's. But they worry about whether a city just out of red ink and still saddled with an inefficient bureaucracy, an urban population with major social services needs and an uncertain economic boom should start slashing revenues so quickly.
They remember the late '70s and '80s, when real estate was booming and the city's tax coffers were full. That was the time to concentrate on management, training, paring down and instilling accountability in an unwieldy work force. Instead, successive Marion Barry administrations blew surpluses on growing the bureaucracy, shelling out sole-source contracts to nonproducers and padding the payroll with political cronies. We are still paying for that betrayal.
Dirty streets, sub-par schools, lackadaisical service delivery, maternal death rates that top Mississippi's and black male life-expectancy rates similar to Third World levels all speak to that. As a result, many residents, but not this council, preferred getting the house in order before shelling out the politically attractive tax goodies. But the allure of votes -- and congressional praise -- was too much.
As this week's experience reminds, cozying up to Congress has a price.
Remember the tale of the D.C. frog and the congressional scorpion?
"Please take me across the lake," said the scorpion to the frog. "Now why would I do that?" replied the frog. "You'll only sting me." "I would never do that!" answered the scorpion. "If I sting you, we'll both drown." So convinced he could trust the scorpion, the frog swam out in the lake with the scorpion on his back -- only to get stung promptly. The dying and incredulous frog croaked, "Why'd you do that?" Said the scorpion as they went down, "It's my nature."
Careful, D.C. Republicrats, careful.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.