DANA MILBANK: D.C.’s tarnished reputation


One of many exciting things about living and working in the capital is that you never know just what the District of Columbia government will come up with next.

A month ago, D.C. officials declared that they were prepared to end the city’s tradition of many-hued cabs by requiring that all taxis be painted red – the color universally associated with fire-emergency vehicles. Even Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said it “would look like a fire engine coming down the street.”

This latest inspiration, following an aborted plan to paint multi-color stripes on all cabs, brings to mind the decision by city officials several years ago that cabs should be equipped with roof lights that said “Call 911.” The lights, intended to stop robberies, led some visitors to think the way to order a cab was to place an emergency call.

Now Gray and other city pols are sounding a different alarm. They went up to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and held a news conference demanding that Congress give the D.C. government more responsibility and authority. Gray said that he and other “freedom fighters” for the District will “wage this battle” until the city is “freed from this bondage.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting representative in the House, called for “resistance to the autocratic reversal of the local laws of the District of Columbia” by Congress.

It’s just as well that the pair held their sparsely attended news conference at a time when lawmakers are home on recess. Because of the D.C. government’s reputation for corruption and bungling, nobody is listening anyway.

Gray and Norton are justified in their demands for more local autonomy. Forty years after the District was granted home-rule authority by Congress, Republicans in the legislature are still using their constitutional authority to meddle in local decisions on abortion, gun control, needle exchange, unionization, transportation and school vouchers.

But it’s also clear that D.C.’s demands for autonomy won’t have a chance until the District cleans up the ethical problems and financial shenanigans that have plagued local government in the two-plus years of Gray’s administration.

D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) was admonished recently by the city’s newly formed ethics board for improperly interfering with health inspectors who were trying to close a rat-infested food business. A few months ago, the ethics board found that council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) “demonstrated inappropriate preferential treatment” in working to steer a public contract toward a firm that had contributed to his campaign.

Last fall, then-D.C. Council member Michael Brown disclosed that more than $100,000 had been stolen from his campaign; he lost his re-election bid. Kwame Brown (D) resigned as D.C. Council chairman last summer after he was charged with bank fraud. And former two-term council member Harry Thomas Jr. is serving time after pleading guilty to stealing city funds. Still on the council: former mayor Marion Barry, whose latest in a long line of indiscretions involved a city contract for a woman he had been dating.

Gray himself remains under a cloud because of financial irregularities from his 2010 campaign that are the focus of an investigation into what a federal prosecutor called a “well-financed conspiracy” to install Gray as mayor.

This makes the D.C. government an easy target for the likes of Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who compared D.C. officials to “teenagers” seeking more spending money.

As a financial matter, Mica’s teenager criticism was unfair, because the District has been running budget surpluses and just won an upgrade in its bond rating. But there is no denying the adolescent behavior in some local authorities’ whimsical approach to everything from education and ambulances to parking tickets.

Last week The Washington Post’s Ashley Halsey III detailed how the District has been abusing speed cameras, bringing in $84.9 million in fiscal 2012, or 20 percent of the D.C. budget surplus. One downtown camera alone has brought in $8.1 million since October by trapping 305 drivers a day in a 25-mph zone at the bottom of a hill on a stretch of road that for several blocks is a four-lane divided highway.

Norton is right to call out the hypocrisy of House Republicans “because we thought that they, with us, would revere local control over federal power. We have seen that their principles stop at the District line.”

But before they can make demands of the House, D.C. officials need to get their own house in order.

Follow DANA MILBANK on Twitter, @Milbank. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com

Dana Milbank