BACK IN THE days when Congress bossed around the District of Columbia with a colonial vengeance, the poor city fathers downtown (called commissioners, but commissioned only to do as the White House, Senate and House saw fit) never knew what to expect at local budget time. With the flick of a Bic or an executive bark, the District budget could shrink by millions while spending orders went up for whatever the overlords thought good. The police force, for example, was always a fun political subject for Congress to expand and let the city worry about contracting funds to pay for it. But today, at least in one corner of Congress, there has been an encouraging change:

The Senate subcommittee that is charged with monitoring and approving District budgets is headed these days by a Pennsylvanian, Arlen Specter--who not only encourages city initiatives in the criminal justice and education fields but acts to provide additional money for them as well. So it was that last week the senator persuaded his colleagues to approve the addition of $28.7 million to the District's budget. At the same time, the senator's staff emphasized that city officials had been consulted and were "supportive of our efforts."

This is a far cry from the tight-strings-attached "gifts" of money that have been forced on the city in the past--to which we have objected as interference with local self-government. Sen. Specter has explained that he hopes to help the city become a model for others--and so far his approach has been a model, too, that others on the Hill might note, and support.