Ten years ago this month, Rep. Ken Gray (D-Ill.) was trying to sell his congressional colleagues on the desirability of a new convention center for the District of Columbia.
"Mr. Chairman," he said, "we know that this center will be used all year long. The circus can play there a month out of the year. We can have the Ice Capades, the horse show, the boat show, and many other things that your constituents -- and, yes, your own families -- will not now attend out at the armory or at the colliseum. Additionally, we can have four or five different functions going on simultaneously. We can have all the inaugural balls under one roof."
Now, a decade later, with the center mere months from completion, some members of Congress want to cripple it. Riders attached to the D.C. appropriations bills in both houses would put the new center off limits to "any concert or other performance of music, any circus or rodeo, any athletic competition, any theatrical production or any similar spectator event."
The rider, whose authorship has yet to be determined, is clearly meant as a favor to Capital Centre owner Abe Pollin, who wants no in-town competition for his Landover facility.
Now, Abe Pollin is a very nice man: public-spirited, generous and, no doubt, clean, loyal, honest and brave as well. But it is all spectacularly beside the point. There is nothing in either the Constitution, common sense or the Boy Scout manual that says District residents must be stuck with a $100 million center that cannot pay for itself because of the need for protecting Pollin's considerable investment.
Nor is there anything in the legislative history of the act that authorized the convention center. In fact, if the Congress had imposed such restrictions 10 years ago, there is little doubt that the city would have elected not to build the center at all. The view of Ken Gray was, during congressional debate, the prevailing one: that the center, while especially designed to give the city the capability of competing for major conventions, would also be used for other purposes.
That is why local civic and business leaders thought it reasonable to impose a special hotel tax to raise $21 million in start-up money. That is why the city undertook to borrow $77 million in capital improvement money from the federal government (which local taxpayers will have to amortize).
The rider was knocked off the House measure in a parliamentary move by D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy. But the rider remains on the Senate bill. Sometime the two versions will have to be reconciled.
Mayor Marion Barry appears to have muddied the water by agreeing with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to a compromise that would allow use of the Convention Center for charitable or educational purposes. He said he opposes any restriction and only agreed to the compromise, which the House rejected, because he is "a practical realist (who) didn't want a whole appropriations bill jeopardized by this dispute."
The reasonable way out of the dispute is for the Senate to drop the Pollin provision. It simply doesn't make sense for the city to build a center that would, from Day One, be off limits not just to the circus, or a presidential or mayoral inaugural, but also to Georgetown University's NCAA-finalist basketball team or the UDC's Division II national champions.