City Journal

Tucker Carlson
How the GOP Can Make D.C. OK
Congressional Republicans have taken control of Washington’s failed city government. They have the chance to turn the nation’s capital from a basket case into a beacon.
Autumn 1997

On July 30, Congress pulled the plug on one of the nation's longest-running experiments in liberal urban policy, which by then was unmistakably, miserably, failing. Washington, D.C., was at rock-bottom: crime raged virtually unchallenged, City Hall's vast bureaucracy barely functioned, the school system had become a cruel farce, residents and businesses were fleeing town. With a Republican-sponsored law stuck onto this year's budget bill, Congress stripped Mayor Marion Barry of his authority over every significant government agency, leaving him with jurisdiction over nothing but libraries and parks. The City Council ended up just as toothless. Power passed to a federally appointed control board, which immediately dispatched new chiefs to the nine largest city agencies. The board will also choose a chief management officer, with powers as yet unspecified, who will stay until the city's budget is balanced four years in a row. It was the most radical change in the way the District of Columbia has been governed since the city received limited home rule a quarter-century ago.

At first Congress thought it could set the District right with much milder measures. But the financial control board it appointed in 1994 achieved little more than assembling some reliable statistics. And even when Congress realized it had to go further last summer and prepared to pass hugely expensive White House-backed legislation assuming federal responsibility for such state-like functions as prisons and courts, roads and bridges, and D.C.'s $5-billion-in-the-red pension fund, the bailout plan had few strings attached to force thrift and efficiency on the District.

Fortunately, at the last moment, Lauch Faircloth—head of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the District—rejected such half-measures and demanded that the legislation be accompanied by radical reforms. His boldness was striking: members of Congress, seeing no political gain in meddling with a city where their constituents don't live, usually let District affairs slide. Bold, too, was Faircloth's refusal to pay lip service to the competence of local officials or the right of Washingtonians to home rule. "The District of Columbia does not belong to the people who happen to live between its boundaries," he announced earlier this year. "The city belongs to the people of the United States."

Howls of outrage from the usual demagogues greeted his uncompromising stance: Jesse Jackson compared him to George Wallace; more than 500 self-styled home-rule activists picketed his North Carolina farm; Louis Farrakhan caught the first flight to Washington to stage protests; Marion Barry denounced his own demotion as a "rape of democracy," part of a white plot to deny self-government to Washington's black majority. The city's non-voting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, initially hailing the legislation as "a big win" for the city, reversed her position in hours, quickly becoming its most vocal critic and blasting its architects as mean, heartless, and probably racist.

Swatting all this aside, Republicans in Congress, led by Faircloth, have already begun to set the District straight by cutting taxes, slashing regulation, and helping to fix the police department. Congress has ordered independent consultants into each of the city's largest agencies, to make recommendations for further reform. Encouraged by Faircloth to make greater use of the powers it has been granted by Congress, the control board for the first time seems to be taking an assertive role in reforming the city. In September, the board hired the KPMG Peat Marwick management-consulting firm to devise a new computer system to keep track of the District's byzantine budget.

Now Faircloth and the Republican majority on the District Committee have an extraordinary opportunity: to make Washington the poster child for the new conservative urbanism that has been reviving cities all across the country, from San Diego to Indianapolis to New York. Conservative urban reformers have shown what works, and Congress has the constitutional authority to put this welter of new, experience-tested ideas into effect in Washington. For the time being, Faircloth plans to leave the execution of management reforms to the newly strengthened control board. "We're not going to micromanage the city," says a member of his Senate staff. But Faircloth has vowed to watch the control board's progress carefully, and he has ample power to impose the needed reforms.

He'll need it, for the task of reform is vast. Washington cries out for as much cleaning up and hosing out as Hercules gave the Augean stable. In the 25 years since Congress ceded home rule to the District, city government has grown so bloated that it consumes more tax money per person than anywhere else in America—$8,296 for every man, woman, and child in 1996, as compared with a combined state and local total of $7,673 in New York and $4,804 in Philadelphia. The District spends more per capita on fire and police ($1.2 million a year just for the mayor's personal security detail), schools, and welfare than any other city. Its workforce, second in employees per capita only to New York, is more than big enough to provide world-class municipal services.

Yet city agencies often leave even basic tasks undone: snow stays unplowed in winter, garbage uncollected in the heat of summer. City streets have reached Third-World disrepair. "Residents continue to drive down streets with potholes big enough to bury a cat in," complained Faircloth, who once headed the North Carolina Highway Commission, at a Senate hearing this summer. A recent survey found traffic in Washington—despite its wide, well-planned streets—among the worst in the country, thanks to illegible street signs and local police who almost never direct traffic, even during the height of tourist season. As for cleanliness, by late August of this year, 32 out of 34 of the city's street-sweeping machines were broken, along with a more than a third of its garbage trucks. Even when the trucks are working, the Washington Post found, the average city garbage collector picked up only ten tons of trash a week, compared with the 39 tons per man per week average in New York. The city government can't even keep track of the money it is owed. A recent control board study found that the District could add $76 million to its coffers simply by collecting taxes and water bills more efficiently.

Why are city services so bad? Simple: for decades, as Dwight Cropp, a former member of Barry's cabinet, explained to the Washington Post, "government wasn't seen as providing a service, but providing an income." The explicit goal of the past four Barry administrations has been to hire and pay as many voters as possible. As one observer put it: "In Chicago, the city hires ten people to do the work of five, and they do it; Washington hires 20 to do the work of five, and they don't do it." Every financial crisis in the District's recent history springs from local politicians' schemes to enlarge their political base by expanding the municipal payroll, diverting every possible dollar—even grants to assist abused children and money set aside to bury victims of violent crime—to more city jobs. When it was announced this summer, for instance, that the federal rescue plan would produce a short-term savings for the city of close to $200 million, Mayor Barry argued that the money should be spent on "summer jobs" and a "bonus for D.C. government employees," a notion the control board naturally squelched.

With a government-by-spoils-system—in a city whose Democratic leaders have never had to face the challenges of a strong opposition party or a strong business sector—mismanagement, even graft, have flourished. The District awards more than half of all municipal contracts without competitive bidding, and it pays rent on buildings that house city offices at far higher than market rates, often to political allies of the mayor. Since the end of 1993, the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington has begun at least seven large-scale investigations into fraud in District government. None has yet resulted in an indictment, but all point to profound mismanagement.

Indeed, thanks to mismanagement, the city has been broke for some time. This spring it couldn't advertise properties for sale in the Washington Post, because it couldn't pay its previous bills for classified ads. Last year city government offices fell into crisis when money to buy toilet paper ran out. Being broke, of course, hasn't stopped city officials from continuing to dream up new, often strange, ways to spend public funds. Several years ago, when the city was desperately short of cash, Marion Barry planned to pour $18 million into a 100-room "health spa and retreat" for District employees presumably needing relaxation after a long day of idleness and graft.

Barry went to prison for smoking crack before the retreat could be built, but his taste for ostentatious public expenditures survived his incarceration. He recently proposed balancing the city's budget in 1998 by cutting $50 million from the police department and schools, but around the same time he unveiled a plan to spend almost $3 billion on transportation projects, including a network of urban bike paths and an elaborate system of water taxis. "Obviously, the forecasts for D.C. were very bleak," conceded Michele Pourciau, a city employee who directed the proposal, which took four years and $500,000 in consultants' fees to create. "If we depended on forecasts, we would just fill the potholes and go home."

Washington's school system fits this same pattern: vast spending (the highest per-pupil outflow in the nation) and paltry returns both in terms of poor student performance and ill-equipped, ill-maintained schools—for the by now familiar Washington reason. District schools are less an educational enterprise than a jobs program for politically connected city residents. A school board member summed up the problem in 1988, when he bragged to a reporter that he used his position to reward friends, family, and political supporters. "Sometimes I feel like I run a job placement service," he said. Result: the school system now employs more than 10,000 people, including the nation's highest-paid school board and "window-shade repairers" who earn $50,000 a year. The system has the highest ratio of administrators to teachers in the country—one for every 16 teachers, as compared with one for every 91 in Chicago.

Even the most incompetent teachers are almost never fired, not only because of strict union regulations, as in New York, but also because of the culture of racial solidarity that flourishes in Washington's mostly black civil service corps. "Government became a brotherhood and a sisterhood," Sam Newman, the former director of the city's emergency services, told the Washington Post this summer. "People would say, `I don't want to fire this person; I can't write him up.' " Stories are legion of incompetent or even dishonest employees getting shuffled from job to job but never getting fired.

For the students, the results are what you'd expect. Their average score on the verbal section of the SAT in 1997 was only 412, below the already embarrassingly low national average of 505, and down five points from the year before. Math scores average 399, for a combined SAT average of just 811. (The average combined score in New York's public schools was 997.) And those were just the kids who planned on going to college. Over half the students in the District schools drop out before graduation. A control board report late last year was stinging in its bluntness: "For each additional year that students stay in [District public schools], the less likely they are to succeed, not because they are unable to succeed, but because the system does not prepare them to succeed."

As crime rates dropped in virtually every other major municipality in America—most dramatically in New York—they climbed steadily in Washington, reaching more than 12,000 offenses per 100,000 residents in 1995. From 1985 to 1996, burglary, assault, and robbery shot up; murders increased by 169 percent, and car thefts skyrocketed by almost 500 percent. Fear of crime drives residents and businesses out of the city and keeps new ones from moving in. "If there's a sense that your employees are not going to be safe, then that's an issue," says Diane Duff of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "Public safety has really played into the [business location] equation."

The city's lenient laws—a legacy of the 1960s black-power types who have dominated the city's politics for 25 years—are part of the problem. For example, a law that prohibits local judges from setting bail higher than suspects can pay long prevented the District from keeping many dangerous criminals off the streets while they await trial. And while fully a third of all crimes prosecuted in the District are drug-related, the city has had among the most lenient drug laws in the country. Many crack-cocaine sellers who under federal sentencing guidelines would get 12 to 24 months behind bars would get probation under District law.

But the biggest problem is the police force. Not that there's any shortage of cops: the District has more than any other city in America. It has more than seven uniformed officers for every 1,000 residents, compared with four per 1,000 in New York and 2.6 per 1,000 in Los Angeles. But many of this vast army are unfit for the job; Marion Barry has long pushed aggressively for affirmative action in the police department, and during his first three terms, police force entry standards fell sharply.

What was once among the nation's most professional forces became yet another city-sponsored jobs program for Barry's constituents. Race norming became the rule on tests for hiring and promotion. The department swore in entire classes of recruits without conducting background investigations. Many recruits later turned out to have criminal records, frequently for drug dealing and violence; at least one had listed his home address as the city's largest mental hospital. At one point, in what seemed almost a clever satire of a liberal program, Barry decided to scrap employment qualifications altogether and simply hired cops and firemen by lottery. (Lani Guinier made almost the same astonishing suggestion in a recent New York Times op-ed.) An outraged Congress soon voted overwhelmingly to stop the practice.

The results of all the laxity were predictable. Scores of cops were arrested for crimes ranging from running a drug ring and armed robbery to rape and murder. Many officers who weren't corrupt were not mentally capable of performing the job. A review of the department conducted by the consulting firm of Booz Allen and Hamilton found that in 1996, 16 percent of the city's police officers made 90 percent of arrests. Then again, these numbers shouldn't be surprising: out of a force of about 3,500 cops, Booz Allen found that last year just 654 actually patrolled the streets. The rest stayed back at headquarters, administering.

Meanwhile, good cops found their work hampered by almost comic mismanagement. Crime-scene evidence routinely ended up misplaced or stolen, equipment was outdated (by the mid-nineties, many cops were still using manual typewriters and rotary-dial telephones) when it wasn't broken. On a single day several years ago, 12 out of 19 patrol cars in one police district were out of order. By the beginning of 1997, the department, demoralized and widely considered to be in competition with New Orleans as the worst in the nation, was losing a net total of ten officers a month, many of them experienced veterans, fleeing to higher-paying and safer departments in neighboring jurisdictions.

A 1997 study by the liberal Brookings Institution determined that Washingtonians are "grossly overtaxed." You can say that again. The report identified 20 separate taxes and 115 fees levied by the city. In addition to its heavy personal and corporate income taxes, the city has a complicated sales-tax structure that gouges residents every time they pay for goods and services. It costs more to register a deed or pay excise tax on a truck in Washington than anyplace else in the country. Local government takes a whopping 20 cents from every gallon of gas sold in Washington, as well as 10 percent of every restaurant bill and 12 percent of all parking fees (in a city where parking fees are inevitable). Add to these one of America's highest property taxes, and the result is ugly: a District resident making $25,000 a year will pay about 88 percent more in local taxes than his counterpart in the average American city. As for business, all this helps to make Washington, according to the Small Business Survival Foundation, the most hostile location in the country for small-business owners.

The city's legendary maze of regulations and licensing fees adds costs to virtually everything Washingtonians do. At a City Council meeting several years ago, District resident Jeanie Ann Malloy described what it took to build a simple wooden deck in her backyard. She had to travel to at least eight separate government offices and pay three separate fees before she received the permit. The many signatures required were to be signed, according to city regulations, with "black ink ball-point pens made by Cross or Skillcraft or equivalent, . . . black permanent ink fine felt tip pens made by Sanford (Sharpie), . . . [or] black permanent ink drafting pens." Any deviation from the prescribed pens, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs warned Malloy, would result in the forfeiture of her fees. In all, Malloy visited the DCRA five times over the course of many weeks. Each time, she had to toil up six flights of stairs, since the building's elevator was broken.

Malloy's experiences are the rule, not the exception. It now takes a basic zoning permit an average of 13 months to wend its way through the maze of city departments; an ordinary city contract takes 216 days. Even Eleanor Holmes Norton complained recently to colleagues that it took her a year to obtain city permission to build a deck on her house.

No wonder citizens and jobs are streaming out of town. Between 1990 and 1995, according to census data, Washington lost 52,900 residents as well as a net total of some 1,000 businesses, according to Dun and Bradstreet. By 1997 there were only about 37,000 people left in the city who make $50,000 or more a year—this out of a population of 543,000. As one Republican Senate staffer involved in the reform efforts puts it: "The problem with Washington is, nobody wants to live here, and no one wants to run a business here."

Congress's reformers will have no shortage of good ideas to draw on as they struggle to clean up this mess. Here are the ones they should consider most carefully.

First: privatization. In Indianapolis, Mayor Stephen Goldsmith—perhaps the most visible spokesman for the new conservative urban policy—dramatically improved services while saving taxpayers $250 million so far, simply by introducing competition. Over the past several years, Goldsmith has put up for competitive bid about 75 different city services, everything from the local airport and wastewater treatment plant to print shops and microfilm services. In some cases, private—even foreign—companies won the contract. In others, government employees discarded their public-sector work- and seniority-rules, made themselves efficient, and won the bidding. In the end, it doesn't matter who gets the contract, as long as whoever gets it is the most cost-effective the city can find, a result that competition encourages.

The District's garbage hauling, road repairs, tax collection, property assessment, even the management of its libraries (four of which were closed earlier this year because of rat infestation and broken toilets)—all should be subjected to the purifying realities of the free market. Simply privatizing the city's payroll handling, according to a recent internal audit, would save the District about $8 million a year.

Second: school vouchers. Washington nearly got this right last year, when a majority of both houses of Congress voted to give the District a school-choice program that would have offered poor children vouchers worth up to $5,000 apiece to attend private schools. The money would have come directly from the federal treasury rather than from the city's school system budget—making it less controversial than other such proposals. The National Education Association lobbied hard against it anyway, and the bill died in conference, under the threat of a veto from President Clinton. Republicans plan to try again; District-related voucher bills are pending in both the House and the Senate, under the sponsorship of Dick Armey and Dan Coats.

The purpose of school choice is not to weaken or replace public schools but instead to make them strong through competition. It would also reduce the destructive power of teachers' unions, by breaking the monopoly they currently hold over the education of poor children. "Whether you're a high-quality teacher doesn't matter much right now in Washington schools," says John Norquist, Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, where a well-known school-voucher program flourishes. "You get paid whether you teach well or not. Under a competitive model, where what the parents think matters, high-quality teachers will be in great demand. So if you're a good teacher, you have nothing to fear from school choice." For bad teachers, of course, school vouchers are a different story.

"There is no active opposition to school choice within the political culture of Milwaukee at this point," says Norquist. The system's biggest supporters are the people it was designed to help most: impoverished, largely black, inner-city students whose parents are delighted with the quality of the private schools their kids now attend. "In the African-American community, because they were the ones bearing the greatest burden of it, there was the greatest frustration with more and more money being spent every year on public schools, with lower results," says Norquist.

Third: the single most important thing reformers could do for the low-income residents of Washington is to reduce the crime that makes their neighborhoods so dangerous. Here the city is already on the right track. Congress's rescue plan has toughened up the laws, bringing federal sentencing standards to the District, for example. And in 1996, even before Congress passed its new legislation, the control board managed to strip the mayor of the power to hire and promote senior officers, breaking Barry's political control over the police department. With Barry unable to meddle in department affairs, the city's police chief, Larry Soulsby, a 24-year veteran of the force whom Barry originally appointed, appears to have been doing his job well: arrests have increased this year, and the city's crime rate is down by 17 percent.

Encouragingly, Soulsby has chosen exactly the right model to follow: "the Manhattan Model," as cops all over the world call the style of policing that Commissioner William Bratton instituted in the New York police department. Bratton's well-known innovations were profound but also fairly simple. The key is the "Broken Windows" approach—the aggressive enforcement of laws against minor, often so-called victimless, crimes and quality-of-life offenses like public drunkenness, public urination, prostitution, aggressive panhandling, crack smoking, and the like, on the grounds that when police don't enforce the laws against crimes of disorder, criminals get the message that no one is in charge and feel emboldened to commit more serious crimes. To this approach Bratton added modern management techniques and rigorous, computer-aided analysis of crime patterns. Figure out where the crimes are taking place—all the crimes, not just the dramatic ones—and stamp them out, swiftly and forcefully, with "zero tolerance." The people you arrest for breaking little laws frequently turn out to be people who have broken big ones.

Republicans should keep their attention focused on Soulsby's progress. Unlike many social trends, crime is easy to measure, and if, by next year, crime of all kinds has not dropped dramatically in Washington, or if Soulsby reverts to the counterproductive management practices of his predecessors, Republicans in Congress should put the city's police department directly under federal control.

Fourth: lighten the taxes and regulations that have been sinking Washington's economy. Congress has already eliminated capital gains taxes for businesses located in neighborhoods that have at least 10 percent of their residents below the poverty line—which makes most of the city an enterprise zone now. People who live in neighborhoods with 20 percent of the residents in poverty will receive steep tax breaks on income, as will the businesses who hire them. These measures are a start, but such targeted social engineering is bound to be less effective than across-the-board tax cuts that remove the barriers to entrepreneurship and residency all across the city.

Crucially, Congress has forced the city to lighten the crippling regulatory burden it had piled on businesses. The process began last year—quite accidentally—when Mayor Barry created a free-market-oriented advisory commission whose recommendations he almost certainly planned to ignore. This summer, however, Senator Faircloth hoisted the mayor on his own petard: he added language to the rescue bill that requires the city to reform its regulations within six months, "pay[ing] specific attention to the fullest extent possible" to the commission's findings. The commission's 120 two-fisted recommendations, announced in late August, included eliminating 118 of the 129 types of licenses businesses now must obtain, reducing the time it takes for a business owner to obtain the proper permits from weeks to only a few hours, and getting rid of most of the city's 230 boards and commissions, from the useless Acupuncture Advisory Committee to the useless Nuclear Freeze Advisory Committee. The commission also recommended scrapping the city's 20-year-old rent-control program, a retrograde program that in a city with a fast-declining population is even sillier than usual. Should the city fail to implement these proposals, Congress should impose them by law in the next budget bill.

Finally: before they can finish reviving Washington, congressional Republicans will have to brace themselves for ever-louder charges of bigotry, as is the fate of many urban reformers, at least until their reforms start to work. Since the beginning of home rule, the District's leaders have been addicted to racial politics: in a mostly black city that has never become fully independent of a mostly white Congress, racism makes an all-purpose excuse for city government's failures and a handy weapon to bludgeon political enemies. Barry is a master of this technique, and his predecessor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, was legendary for accusing virtually everyone who disagreed with her of racism: "It's something straight out of Uncle Tom's Cabin," began one of her favorite lines. As a white Republican from North Carolina, Lauch Faircloth is bound to attract charges of racism from the District's political leaders, many of whom never tire of reminding their constituents of the good ol' boy legislators who ran the District until the 1970s. So far, the flinty Faircloth has ignored the taunts, and should continue to ignore them. As he said recently: "I've heard so many meaningless statements from Marion Barry that one more doesn't matter."

Over the last couple of years, Republicans have found their grasp on "the vision thing" slipping. But on urban matters, they actually have a comprehensive vision already at work on the state and local levels, a vision that has produced dramatic improvements in city life—and good results at the polls as well. They have everything to gain by seeing it through to success in the District too.

And success is winnable in Washington. Congress's mere announcement of its sweeping legislation, without any concrete steps to implement it, by itself produced dramatic results. According to the Washington Post, employees at the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—the much-resented agency in charge of issuing permits and regulating businesses in the District—were panicked by the dethroning of Marion Barry. Long notorious for its stifling red tape and rude or nonexistent service, the DCRA is the agency where, the Post reminded readers, in the middle of the day in years past, "entire offices and counters were abandoned, and visitors wandered the halls in search of assistance." Without the mayor's protection, explained one 25-year agency veteran, "There is an attitude of terror here. Everyone in my office is afraid of losing their job." So nervous were they shortly after the congressional takeover that many of them had begun to do their jobs well. On the evening a Post reporter visited, the DCRA's permit window was still accepting applications an hour after scheduled closing time.

Imagine what a determined onslaught would produce.

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