Watching Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, jam a social-rider-riddled D.C. budget bill down the city's throat for the third time -- thus once again pushing D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to the verge of apoplexy on the House floor -- I was reminded of a scene from the dog days of last summer. It was an event held in August at Georgia Brown's, the upscale soul food restaurant located nearly midway between The Washington Post building and the White House. The evening probably convinced Istook that the District of Columbia is an unexpected blessing, especially to a congressional overseer who doesn't give a hoot about home rule.
There was Chairman Istook, the anti-gay social conservative from Oklahoma, being feted at a D.C.-sponsored fund-raiser. And among the crowd of local folks who scarfed down cornmeal-crusted catfish and fried chicken livers while pitching in $40,000 in checks to keep Istook on the congressional payroll were none other than the city's mayor, Anthony Williams, and D.C. Council members Jack Evans (Ward 2), Phil Mendelson (At Large) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (Ward 4) -- Democrats all.
To the city's mayor and his three council associates belongs the distinction of having aided the one House member who is making it most difficult to get a clean D.C. budget bill out of Congress this year. Williams, Evans and company will be quick to say that they did not make contributions to Istook's reelection that night. But what they did was worse. By showing up at the cocktail party, they lent their offices and party affiliation to his plan to defeat an expected Democratic challenger.
The significance of the evening wasn't lost on every city lawmaker, however. Ironically, it was the District's only two elected Republicans, David Catania (At Large) and Carol Schwartz (At Large), who had the gumption not to let themselves get used in this way. Schwartz and Catania went so far as to release a written statement declaring their intention to boycott the event because Istook, a fellow Republican, supported a D.C. budget that deeply offended home rule. Would that their Democratic counterparts were so principled.
Now Mayor Tony Williams is tooling around town repeating the Aretha Franklin line about wanting more "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" from Congress on budget matters. Well, one sure-fire way to lose respect is by sucking up to the congressman most noted for dissing D.C. self-determination. The organizer of Istook's reelection fund-raiser, Kerry Pearson -- another local Democratic activist -- defended his actions, citing Istook's "personal style," which is better than that of his subcommittee predecessor, acid-tongued Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.). To be sure, Taylor thought District leaders were dumb, dishonest or both, and didn't mind showing it. But legislative record on the District is the bottom line. On that score, a placard held by a demonstrator outside Georgia Brown's on that memorable night in August got it right. It read "Chairman Istook: A Kinder Gentler Assassin of Home Rule."
It isn't only self-government that's taking a battering on Capitol Hill. Because President Clinton backs home rule and opposed social riders on the bill, including provisions that ban the use of medical marijuana and drug-needle exchanges, Istook and House Republicans are branding him as soft on drugs. It's a cheap shot. It's also outrageous that Democrats Williams, Evans, Mendelson and Jarvis honored a Republican who would go on to treat a sitting Democratic president so disrespectfully.
Rather than schmoozing with an enemy of home rule, they would have better spent their time raising money to send to the Oklahoma Democratic Party so a good candidate could take on Istook. But that would have meant acting as party leaders rather than as the tax-cut-loving Republicrats that at least some in that bunch have become. Istook wouldn't have liked the idea of funds flowing from a predominantly Democratic city to the coffers of a Democratic opponent in Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District. But staunch partisan politician that he is, Istook might have respected the city more. What deference is due elected officials who would turn their backs on their own party for a politician who doesn't support their core values? And what did they get in return?
Ah, but I can hear it now. "Regardless of his views on certain social issues, which I do not agree with, it is important to have a dialogue." That was Evans speaking when asked about his presence at Istook's reelection fund-raiser. Well, listen to Istook's end of the dialogue Thursday as he referred the president's veto of a budget bill offensive to home rule: "I can only surmise that [Clinton] is trying to pander to certain political extremists, perhaps to assist the vice president in securing an important part of his hoped-for constituency in his race for president. That is my theory," he said. Some dialogue!
Casting his benevolent gaze upon the D.C. crowd at his fund-raiser, Istook must have thought, "They're precious."