It almost isn't necessary to recount the facts of the convention-center stalemate. It's simply this: The chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on the District, Rep. William Natcher (D-ky.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-vt.) don't see eye-to-eye on the amount of public money to be made available for the center. This, in turn, leaves open the question of how much private financing must be furnished by the business community. Their lack of agreement has blocked congressional review of the rest of the District's $1.2 billion fiscal request -- and forced the city to live to live under a "continuing resolution," a legislative sop that requires the city to live strictly by the terms of last year's budget.
City officials contend that the job of resolving the matter is completely up to Congress; local business leaders think that city hall must make the next move. And some people, ourselves included, think the initiative could well come from the business community, since the level of private financing is a crucial consideration in Sen. Leahy's view. For his part, Mr. Natcher is still championing the original proposal made by the mayor - and the business community. What that leaves us with is no convention center, no city budget - and not much chance of getting either any time soon unless there is a change of heart on somebody's part.
While the city won't go out of business, more than $180 million cannot be spent on some very important items. For example, the Department of Human Resources is unable to hire more people to review welfare applicants and check on welfare fraud - which may result in that agency violating a recent court order to straighten out those procedures. What's more, the Board of Elections can't touch the money needed to start the citywide voter deucation campaign and begin the other election preparations.
When it comes to construction projects, of the $177 million requested, the city can only draw $16 million. That means the downtown campus of the University of the District of Columbia cannot get started, and a new library long planned for the northeast part of town cannot be built. Legally required payments for improvements to St. Elizabeths Hospital cannot be made. To make matters worse, construction costs are rising at a rate of almost one percent each month. Every delay means an additional loss of funds that won't be recovered, no matter how quickly the budget is passed.
There may be one last possibility of getting action on both the budget and the center fairly soon,though, admittedly, the risk is high. The convention center could be taken out of the 1978 budget -- and the mayor and city council could submit a new proposal for it in a few weeks, along with the traditional request for other "budget amendments" to supplement the year's finances. Mr. Natcher and Mr. Leahy could be asked to take quick action on the city's revised budget, with the understanding that a brand new plan for funding the center would be forthcoming. If local officials and business leaders put their minds to it, the House and Senate could be offered a new proposal both could support.
Needless to say, this would require the mayor and city council to agree on such a strategy in the first place. Mr. Leahy and Mr. Natcher must also accept the idea and agree to give the new plan a fair hearing. Moreover, business leaders will have to decide, once and for all, just how much they are willing to invest to ensure that a center gets off the ground. It may well be true that once the center is severed from the budget, Congress won't let the city have it at all. But it's clear that the city doesn't stand a chance of getting both the budget and the center any other way.