GIVEN the perils-of-Pauline histories of important D.C. legislation on Capitol Hill this year, even the tentative good news about two home-rule-related bills will be nothing more than that until everything's signed, sealed and on the books. Congress is supposed to do its part for the District in a matter of hours today; and after several turns of direction, the White House appears ready to go along.
One measure would make more uniform and reasonable the way Congress and the White House maintain ultimate control over local lawmaking in the District. The difference up to now has been a tougher system of control over making of criminal laws than over the enactment of other local laws -- as set out in the charter enacted by Congress nearly 11 years ago. The implication then -- and again this year, when the administration initially fought to make the process even tougher for the city -- was that people here might somehow go crazy for crime. But under the proposal ready for final passage, all local measures -- criminal proposals or not -- could become law unless there were formal disapprovals by the House, Senate and White House.
The second significant bill scheduled for final congressional approval took a few federal lickings before emerging in compromise form. It would transfer -- slowly and not without complex arrangements -- St. Elizabeths Hospital from the federal government to the Distict. This measure appeared to have agreement all around, but then the administration backed away and then Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton had his own ideas of how any land should be given to and/or used by the District.
To get any St. Elizabeths agreement in this Congress the District had to accept the insistence of Sen. Eagleton that Congress would have to approve any plans by the city to use property there fo anything other than mental health purposes. A House-approved version of the legislation was far more reasonable; it would have transferred all hospital property, and that not needed by the city for mental health programs could be used in any way consistent with the site's historical landmark designation.
So much for allowing reasonable local discretion. But at least in both the charter and St. Elizabeths measures, the principle of home rule -- of a locally elected government with the responsibilities and authority exercised by other local governments -- has survived serious assaults. There are still more ways it should be strengthened, and we will get to those next -- just as soon as Congress and the White House make good on their immediate agreements to enact the two bills now coming up.