Don't look to us for help: This is the message members of Congress have delivered to city officials who are struggling to balance the budget. We may as well get used to hearing this. The message will be repeated with ever greater frequency in the coming months, as Washington feels the effects of other people's democracy.
Congressional largesse to the District historically has varied inversely with congressional grants of self-government. The more self-government, the less money. In the first 70 years of Washington's existence, Congress quite willingly expanded the authority of the city's elected government and made only grudging and minuscule contributions to the city coffers. When Congress took away all home rule in the mid-1870s and placed the city under three presidentially appointed commissioners, it agreed to pay 50 percent of the District's operating budget, compensation for the enormous amount of federal and other non-taxable land in the District. This generosity did not last, however, and in the 20th century the federal share of the city's budget fell steadily. By the 1940s, it was down to 8 percent. Interestingly, it was at that point that many city residents, previously content with their voteless status, began to agitate for home rule.
When Congress passed the partial home rule charter six years ago, the proportion of the District budget that came from the federal payment was double what it is today. It is no accident that a statehood initiative is gaining support.
In short, the recent decline in the federal payment is consistent with past realities. Federal control usually meant federal money, home rule meant increased burdens on local taxpayers and a decline in the federal payment meant increased local interest in home rule.
There is another reason that Congress has become so stingy with the city. The District of Columbia has become a national symbol of lavish and inefficient government living off the labor of an overtaxed citizenry. What better way to hit the privileged class that staffs the federal octopus than to cut the budget of the federal city?
If you doubt that Washington is perceived in those terms, just look at national journalistic coverage of Washington. Before 1977, when Washington was "chocolate city," crime capital of the world" and a leading case of "the urban crisis," no one thought to characterize this city as a paradise of affluence. But in the last three years, magazines and newspapers have published a steady stream of articles that portray this city in precisely those terms: "Boomtown on the Potomac. Public Service Has Its Own Rewards, Notably Prosperity," in Time; "Washington: Life of Luxury a Capital Idea" in The Los Angeles Times; "The Wealth of Washington" in Harper's, "Washington: Fat City," in Atlantic, The New Republic devoted an entire issue to the theme "The Good Life in Washington is Bad for America."
The anti-Washington mood can be seen most clearly in the political opposition to the District representation amendment. During the Senate debate, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) argued that the District is "one of the best-kept and most well-financed cities in the world today as a result of taxes from people all over the country." Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) argued that the District maintains a Parasitical relationship" with the rest of the country since "disasters in the 50 states are . . . bonanzas for the District of Columbia."
We need look no further than the Carter White House. Last summer, Jody Powell told the country that "I can't think of a better place for gas lines than Washington. We're suffering because of the way Washington has been behaving." The president himself, in his speech to the nation on energy and national purpose last year, informed us that "Washington, D.C., has become an island."
We are confronting new congressional hostility to the problems of the District because the political system is working. The voters believe the government is taking too much and giving back too little. Politicians respond with tax cuts and budget reductions, but also with symbolic pot shots at the District of Columbia. No matter who wins the November election, the citizens of the District of Columbia will find less and less receptivity to their problems in the White House, on Capitol hill and in the national press.