In every major way, the District is beginning again. The city has a new management-oriented administration and is repositioning itself in the markets, in its schools and in its developing pro-business climate.
The city must also begin again with Congress. Despite a mayor and a revitalized city council with support in Congress, we are seeing a deep structural change in congressional interference. Congress is escalating its intervention both to overturn D.C. laws and to direct budgetary matters.
This year's budget, submitted with tax cuts, savings and surpluses, left little room for complaint. Yet congressional meddling is worse in three ways: (1) more attachments, (2) more permanent attachments and (3) congressionally directed spending. Unless the District stands up for its rights the way any self-respecting American citizen would, a new hole will be carved into the city's already diminished self-government.
For two years now, Congress has penetrated local law more deeply than at any time since the Home Rule Act was passed in 1974. A couple of hot-button riders attached to the D.C. appropriation have grown to many more. We have fought back when the favorites were a ban on local money for abortions for poor women and the heartless anti-gay prohibition that keeps District employees from allowing close family members and partners to buy into health insurance coverage.
We have not always been successful, but until last year, even our unsuccessful fights had helped deter others. Then the congressional appetite grew. The District got some relief last year from a torrent of attachments and some funds that Congress had withheld -- but only through White House negotiations after the entire appropriations process collapsed.
Now many of those riders are back in the worst way. Rep. Ernest Istook, chairman of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, simply folded last year's controversial attachments into this year's bill. Although attachments automatically expire at the end of each fiscal year, the D.C. appropriation came prepacked with riders. All of them prohibited the District from spending not federal funds but its own money on matters about which residents feel deeply: no D.C. funds for our congressional voting rights lawsuit being brought almost entirely pro bono by private lawyers. No D.C. contribution to a needle-exchange program run by the Whitman Walker Clinic to help stem our HIV-AIDS epidemic. No D.C. funds for the medical marijuana initiative, whose outcome Congress has kept us from even learning. These were in addition to the notorious abortion and domestic-partners riders. The chairman did not include an anti-gay adoption attachment and a juvenile smoking code because we got those removed from the final omnibus appropriations bill last year. Administration negotiators had tried hard but did not succeed in getting all the riders off. But they could not veto the entire omnibus bill consisting of many appropriations. The administration's opposition to all these attachments last year and since has been clear in negotiations, in writing and in veto threats. Yet the chairman claimed that he simply was incorporating into his bill attachments the president had signed.
We have demonstrated that given a fair chance, we can prevail on some of the riders. We recently got the Appropriations Committee to vote down two riders -- the anti-needles provision and the medical marijuana attachment -- only to have the Rules Committee revive them on the floor. We got a revived juvenile smoking attachment taken off so the city council can take its own local action. We won a floor vote defeating another anti-gay adoption amendment.
The District no longer gets an annual federal payment and should not be faced with built-in riders or restoration of attachments it defeats fair and square before the city can spend its own local taxpayer funds. The city is used to fighting a few riders from the bottom end of an uneven playing field. The fix is really in when members can count on automatic attachment of a growing number of their controversial favorites.
The danger is even more ominous. Republicans warm to riders. Democrats, who generally support us on home rule grounds, are now asked to vote for odious social riders that they consistently fight on other bills and appropriations. Not surprisingly, they balk.
It's lose-lose for the District. Many Democrats did not want to vote for our appropriation because of the riders, and some of our very best friends did not, including some in the Democratic leadership. Yet on the strength of some improvement and promises, I encouraged an aye vote to get a better bill in conference. We got a worse bill.
If permanent attachments to the D.C. appropriation get only the usual complaints, the city will bear some of the responsibility for chronic congressional interference. The increase in riders threatens a stalemate between pro-home rule members who can't vote for offensive riders and others who often oppose the D.C. appropriation anyway. The District cannot afford to leave itself at the mercy of every member's rider. The growth in controversial attachments to a local budget is splitting Congress and threatening our appropriation from both sides of the aisle.
Even if cash in exchange for rights were excusable, Congress isn't buying. Congressional "extra money" in this appropriation is a fiction. The president added $17 million for in-state tuition -- and one of the reasons I could not let the bill go to the floor before recess was doubt about access to the full funding. The $20 million most often discussed is not "extra." That money is for pretrial, probation and parole functions that must be funded by Congress, which took over these costs in 1997. The $20 million Chairman Istook directed for drug testing and treatment was not additional money.
The president's budget contained $20 million for indispensable missions, including reducing the dangerous overload of accused and convicted criminals assigned to understaffed pretrial, probation and parole offices. If not accomplished by 2000, these D.C. public safety functions will remain in trusteeship. Most of the other so-called "extra" funding comes from the District -- $5 million for Anacostia River cleanup from a financial authority account earmarked for infrastructure; $5 million for designing an extra lane on the 14th Street bridge, not requested by the District but paid for from the District's highway fund; and $18 million for the mayor's severance package, transferred from interest on funds held by the finacial authority.
Caving in without a fight will get the District neither free money nor freedom. In Congress, the city must act strategically, negotiate intelligently and always preserve its options. Simply rolling over and taking it is not an option.
The writer, a Democrat, is the District of Columbia's representative in Congress.