IT WASN'T HARD to see it coming. The fly (Mayor Anthony A. Williams) succumbed to the blandishments of the spider (the D.C. Council) to come into its parlor (the council's closed-door budgeting talks) and got stung for his troubles. Several citizen groups complained at the time that dealing with the budget behind closed doors was not the proper way to conduct the public's business, let alone spend the public's money. We argued that private dealings on the city's budget deny residents the right to observe and participate in decisions that affect them and their pocketbooks. The mayor, however, either to be a good sport or because he believed he could actually cut deals that would stick, gave in to the coaxing of council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and furtively worked with her and other lawmakers to fashion a fiscal 2005 budget that he thought a council majority would buy. As with so many of this mayor's other political ventures, he once again finds himself holding the short end with only himself to blame.
To explain: On Tuesday, despite public markups of the mayor's budget by council committees two weeks ago, lawmakers came together as a committee of the whole and -- surprise, surprise -- an amendment came out of nowhere to cut nearly $60 million from the mayor's spending requests, much of it from the health and human services agencies. To be fair, there had been some vague discussions the preceding Friday about cuts, but specific programs and services were not singled out. The sponsors of the spending cuts, Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), unveiled on Tuesday their package to reduce the rate of spending growth. They were adopted by a 7 to 6 vote, with Mrs. Cropp, the chief backroom dealmaker, finding herself both surprised and on the losing end. Suspending the council session after an acrimonious debate following the vote, Mrs. Cropp said, "I don't think this whole process was the council's greatest hour."
Mrs. Cropp is right, but for the wrong reasons. The council took a major step backward by denying the public an opportunity to have any significant input in the budget process, including last-minute major changes. Budget hearings are a charade and have no relationship to the eleventh-hour, often irrational deals cooked up behind closed doors.
On the substance, we're sympathetic to complaints about the rate of spending growth in the Williams administration, especially about how it can be sustained in the face of a structural deficit. We only wish this issue and the need for fiscal discipline could have been debated openly and with full public participation, particularly by those who provide services to the city's most vulnerable residents.
The council meets for a final budget vote today. Mrs. Cropp, who has been shuttling between her colleagues and the mayor's office, may offer a compromise third way that addresses both concerns about spending growth and about the impact of Tuesday's social-service cuts. The Cropp compromise may produce a final spending plan, but it won't overcome the serious damage to the budget process and confidence in government caused by her cloak-and-dagger approach to the making of public policy. When will the mayor learn?