Time for an overdue talk among DC officials about the government’s core mission
OVER the past several weeks, the political and public policy rhetoric in the District has seemed like a five-alarm fire — the heat and damage impossible to escape. A large part of that reality is predicated on the fact that MAGA Republicans in Congress have begun a Sherman-esque march through DC not for the purpose of ensuring freedom but to shore up a colonial infrastructure that denies nearly 700,000 American citizens their voting representation in the national government while attempting to destroy the Democratic Party’s prospects in the 2024 presidential and congressional races.
That effort was made clear Wednesday during a four-hour hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, chaired by Kentucky Republican James Comer. DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen and DC Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee were called to testify about the District’s policy agenda, the city’s finances and its overall public safety problems. The suggestion of a “crime crisis” was encouraged by the other invited witness, DC Police Union Chair Greggory Pemberton, who is out to repeal several reforms approved by the council after George Floyd’s murder and the racial justice uprising it instigated.
Republican performative politics sometimes can be entertaining. However, they quickly become politically and intellectually tiresome. Amid the GOP onslaught, Mendelson and Allen did well.
Mendelson told me in a brief telephone interview after the hearing that one of his goals going in was to provide an image of council members as sane and thoughtful legislators rather than a “group of left-wing nuts.” Well, he did that.
What was the CFO’s goal? Who knows. He didn’t fare as well, primarily because he didn’t want to admit that that $578 million in projected revenue from planned installation of automated traffic cameras in the mayor’s proposed budget is mostly about money and not necessarily about traffic safety.
The Republican firebrands on the committee did themselves no favors, aside from playing to their base. Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana said at one point, “There is no such thing as gun violence. There is only human violence. It’s intellectually dishonest to say otherwise.”
Considering that ridiculous comment, excuse me if — following my grandmother’s advice not to give more air to airheads — I don’t recount the grandstanding or threats from most of the other Republicans on the committee.
I have been more intrigued and, therefore, held captive by statements made last Friday by a few council members during the public briefing where Mayor Muriel Bowser, sitting through more than three hours of opening statements and questions, defended her $19.7 billion Fiscal Year 2024 Budget and Financial Plan. Mendelson, Council Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie and at-large Council member Robert White each hinted at the kind of critical and collaborative conversations that should have taken place between the executive and legislative branches prior to any budget submission.
Yes, even with me — and perhaps with many other District residents as well — hope springs eternal. We want to believe that officials leading a city that once tottered on the edge of bankruptcy and once again faces a potential fiscal crisis would understand they don’t have the luxury of a divided government.
The executive can’t be on one course while the legislature is on another. This is no time for political scorekeeping. The needs of DC residents — the vulnerable and not so vulnerable — require them to fashion an integrated, comprehensive long-term plan for the city’s recovery that is cost-efficient and cost-effective.
The mayor’s budget plan cannot achieve that goal. Nor, truth be told, can the hodgepodge of programs and policies promoted by the council during the briefing meet that demand. However, Mendelson, McDuffie and White indirectly pointed the way.
McDuffie, like most of his colleagues, acknowledged that the city faces “significant headwinds in 2024” and that the situation could deteriorate even further. Nevertheless, he blasted various aspects of the mayor’s budget — an indirect repeal of the Child Wealth Building Act by not funding it and cuts to the violence interrupters program managed by the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, for example.
The chair of the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development, McDuffie agreed with the need to make investments in a downtown comeback. But he cautioned that, in doing so, “First we have to get the basics right.” He cited preventing crime, having clean, safe corridors and creating fun and engaging spaces and experiences as core issues in bringing people to downtown DC.
There is an increasingly common view that the District government has gone far afield from fulfilling its core mission — public safety, public works, public housing for the poor and working class, public health, public education, and regulatory controls designed to protect citizens and businesses. That wandering has resulted in a scattershot approach to public policy and program delivery with often questionable outcomes.
Can “baby bonds” really be considered a fundamental aspect of government?
To use a cliché, DC has become a jack of all trades and a master of none. Could a back-to-the-basics budget cure what ails the city?
It certainly could address the concerns raised by White about failing to sufficiently fund programs that provide early or upstream responses to problems before they cause downstream catastrophes, floods and drownings.
“A lot of people have heard the story of two people standing on the bank of the river when they hear a child in the water screaming and thrashing; they go in to save the child,” White said during the council’s public briefing. “So as they do, they hear another child in the water.” Then another child needs rescue.
One person goes into the water; the other starts to walk away. “Where are you going?” the individual on land is asked. The response: “I’m going to find out why kids keep falling in the river.”
“I look at the budget and think about upstream problems,” said White.
In that regard, he criticized Bowser’s budget: “Housing protections are eviscerated; the social safety net is eviscerated; schools are underfunded; and violence prevention is underfunded.
“These are all upstream problems that create widespread insecurity and poverty,” White continued. “We are going to keep driving ourselves crazy triaging the fallout because we’re not zeroing in on the symptoms.”
Actually, for the past decade, DC elected officials have spent too much time and far too much of the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash focusing on symptoms — not on the disease or the root cause of problems.
Consider education. While the city spends more than $2 billion in this area, it has failed to produce critical results. Mendelson is right to be enraged by what is happening right now in DC, where Bowser and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee are proposing cuts to the existing budgets of dozens of local schools. Education may not be the perfect elixir for all socioeconomic ills in society, but experience demonstrates it comes pretty close.
A good solid education or specific market-inspired vocational training can go a long way in keeping a person, regardless of their start in life, employed, with a decent salary for decent housing and basic health care. That can help reduce some economic crimes. And quiet as it’s kept, it can adjust standards and values that can help transform not just individuals but whole communities.
When council members harangued Bowser about her proposal to roll back the pandemic-inspired infusion of funds for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program known as ERAP, she reminded them that it is an “emergency program” and warned of the “moral hazard” of regularizing the program as it has operated since 2020. Bowser’s proposed budget allocates $8 million for ERAP in FY 2024, down from $43 million in FY 2023, when federal funds bolstered the program’s funding and broadened its function.
Some residents — and not just those considered middle-class — likely would agree with her. Decades ago, as a junior high school student from a family headed by a single female and living in public housing, I was taught repeatedly by one instructor about agency despite poverty. While she didn’t use the word agency, she helped me to understand the importance of controlling my destiny and carving my own path despite my economic circumstances; she warned me against accepting the limitations that others, perhaps with all good intentions, might ascribe to me because of those circumstances.
Many years later, while attending what is now known as Trinity Washington University, I learned an even more important lesson from my philosophy instructor, Sister Helen Johns, who mid-semester had a stroke. When she came back to teach, I often took to getting her refreshments, using my own money, during the class break. One day, she objected, telling me, “You have to allow me my dignity.”
Those two instructors — one Black, the other white; one in the Deep South, the other in a somewhat Northern city — helped me to understand and appreciate the fragility of dignity and the power of agency. This may seem a digression. It is not.
DC’s elected officials — Bowser, Mendelson, McDuffie, White and the others — have inadvertently opened an important conversation. What is the fundamental mission of the government? How can it be accentuated or renovated within the context of the current budget situation to address the needs of the city’s vulnerable as stated by them — not by advocates or nonprofit managers — in ways that permit them the agency and dignity they need and deserve to advance their dreams and enhance the quality of their lives? Such a discussion can’t be conducted in silos or in separate meeting rooms.
Admittedly, the mayor’s budget has already been delivered and the council has already started holding public hearings. It’s not too late, however, for the executive and legislative branches to come together, perhaps for a one-day retreat, to establish a common fiscal and programmatic path forward that includes agreement on the government’s core mission and adoption of cohesive, comprehensive policies and programs that amplify and implement that agenda.
A lot of good can happen in two months, if egos, grudges and political scorekeeping are tossed aside. Yes, yes, hope does spring eternal.
This article first appeared in TheDCLine.org