As members of the United Nations, ensconced in their new building in New York City, debated what to do about the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, newspaper columnist Bugs Baer pleaded: "Do something, or put back the brewery that was there."
That same advice applies to today's elected officials in the Washington area. Their cries for a "regional approach to regional problems" have been sounded to little effect since 1957.
That was the year that Robert McLaughlin, president of the D.C. Board of Commissioners, convened an informal meeting of 40 officials from the city and the suburbs to talk about working together on common problems. And that talk -- and little else -- has been going on ever after.
For 19 years as the director of public affairs for the Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG), I wrote reports, speeches, news releases, editorials, magazine articles and testimony for congressional hearings on every kind of regional problem -- traffic congestion; growth and the regional economy; the environment; water supply; gun control; hot-pursuit chases by police; and coordination of snow removal, among others.
All of these problems remain unsolved. A few have been reduced, but most -- including traffic, gun control and uncontrolled growth -- have become severe. Although the Washington area remains one of America's most prosperous, attractive and vibrant regions, too many of these regional problems typify our life today and shape our future.
It is significant that two of the fronts on which we have made a certain amount of progress -- our rapid rail system and our two airports -- are overseen by independent organizations armed with legal power (the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority).
Therein lies the rub. From the '60s into the '80s, those of us on the staff of COG lived in fear of any talk about granting legal authority to our organization. We knew that such proposals, although well intended, would ignite charges of "super government" and would rekindle debate about the region's future and the future of COG itself.
While the talk continues about a cooperative, regional approach, the problems continue too, and most are getting worse. This is no call for a super government, but surely an area-wide, multipurpose organization -- with a legal base that allows local officials to cope with regional problems while not surrendering their local authority -- is not beyond the wit of mankind.
The harsh reality is that if today's officials are to do something about these problems, they will have to do more than stand before the TV cameras and say the same things officials have been saying since Eisenhower was president. Instead, they must, as Lincoln said, "Think anew, and act anew."
With all the talk about the problems and opportunities as we close the books on this millennium and head into the next, what better time than now to reopen the question not only of the problems themselves but of how to organize to solve them?
Our technical capacity to identify, define and solve problems is racing way ahead of our human commitment to do so. If present elected officials in our city halls, county buildings, state houses and Congress mean what they say, they must transform rhetoric into action that offers a genuine promise of new solutions and more realistic means of achieving them. In the words of that popular cartoon on office walls, "Next week, we've got to get organized."
Leadership is the first requirement to produce any organized approach. The opportunity and the need already are there. As our elected officials consider our problems and what role they might play in their solution, they can -- and should -- consider the question posed so simply and eloquently a century ago by Grover Cleveland:
"What is the use of being elected, unless you stand for something?"
-- Bill Gilbert
was director of public affairs for the Metropolitan Council of Governments from 1965 to 1984.