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The Dukes of D.C.

By Colbert I. King

Saturday, July 25, 1998; Page A21

Here's a Washington tale you may have missed. It's about what it means to dwell in the Duchy of the District of Columbia and how special interests can slant the dukes in Congress whenever their deep concerns are at stake. The whole thing is a throwback to an era when Capitol Hill overseers used the District as their own little sandbox, especially for building campaign contributions. This is one small story about how it works.

Bet you never heard much about the initiative to introduce electricity competition in the District's public schools. It quietly surfaced several weeks ago as the brainchild of Republican Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. of Virginia. Never did a more selfless, altruistic proposal grace the halls of Congress, to hear Bliley tell it. "The only 'special interest' I am trying to help are the schoolchildren attending the District's public schools," said Bliley in a letter to a skeptical Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who, upon learning of his preemptive electricity deregulation scheme, geared up on a wartime footing.

Bliley's proposal would let the D.C. school system buy its electricity on a competitive basis instead of purchasing it only from Pepco, the city's electric utility. (In the interest of full disclosure, I once worked for about a year with Pepco 21 years ago.)

Bliley argued that his approach would enable the schools to cut their energy bill, giving them savings to use on other educational projects. Norton, along with the city's people's counsel, Elizabeth Noel, and sundry others would have none of it -- on home rule grounds and because of possible costs to Pepco and the city.

To digress for a moment, Rep. Bliley's interest in introducing new sources of electricity in the District has some history. Folks living in Georgetown can tell you all about their little go-round with Dominion Energy, the sister company of Virginia Power, a few years ago. Dominion wanted to expand and renovate Georgetown University's aging power plant -- to kick it up a few notches, so to speak -- so it would be big enough to generate thousands of kilowatts to sell to Pepco, as well as provide steam for Georgetown U. to use for heating and cooking, all at a discount. But Georgetown residents, visualizing pollutants and the volatile emissions joining forces with partying off-campus students, predictably went bonkers.

Not widely known at the time, however -- though dutifully reported in The Post -- was the role of one Rep. Thomas Bliley. A key Georgetown U. alumnus, Bliley weighed in with the D.C. zoning board in behalf of dear old alma mater, which liked what Dominion had to offer.

Bliley's electricity competition pilot project for the D.C. schools sparked similar fireworks. In fact, it lit up Pepco. And in turn, the electric company turned on the juice.

Pepco's president and chief executive officer, John Derrick Jr., fired off a June 19 letter to Rep. Charles Taylor, whose D.C. appropriations subcommittee was being asked to tack Bliley's proposal onto the District's Appropriations bill. Derrick charged that Bliley's proposal would "allow Virginia utilities to compete to serve the District of Columbia's schools, while District of Columbia utilities [read Pepco] would be barred from competing to supply Virginia schools." That, said Derrick, was inappropriate, a violation of the city's rights to make its own call on electricity competition, and an unwarranted introduction of piecemeal deregulation to satisfy "one special interest group."

The Pepco letter was sent to Bliley and other appropriations subcommittee members, but the main target was Chairman Taylor, who could help make Bliley's dream come true.

What happened next? Not only Pepco, but the electricity industry opposed the Bliley approach to deregulation. So guess who was guest of honor at the July 14 "grip and grin" fund-raiser hosted by a North Carolina utility and PowerPac, the industry's Washington political action committee -- which is supported by Pepco's PAC and its chief executive? Why, none other than Chairman Charles Taylor.

And guess who was feted at another PowerPAC gathering of EEI fund-raiser this week? Why good ol' Lauch Faircloth, Charles Taylor's North Carolina counterpart on the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittee.

And, shucks, wouldn't you just know it? Although the D.C. budget appropriations bill, which was approved yesterday by Taylor's subcommittee, had all sorts of undesirable provisions, that pesky ol' Bliley proposal didn't make the cut. Oh, yes, one more thing. The House Appropriations chairman's fund-raising committee -- Friends of Bob Livingston -- also received a $1,000 PowerPac contribution last month.

It's worth noting that Taylor and Faircloth serve on other committees of interest to the electric industry, so the PowerPac contributions are aimed at wooing them on more than District matters. Likewise, there is nothing unique about this flow of campaign funds to members of Congress. Buying "goodwill" is a major Washington pastime, if not preoccupation. And it stinks.

Bliley's proposal may well have been premature, too far-reaching and potentially costly to Pepco and ultimately the District. But the way it was taken off the table leaves a bad taste, too. The possible influence of money -- the buying of access, the use of connections -- may be effective in shooting down ideas, good and bad. But the private cocktails, and shrimp and checks in a bowl all have the effect of shutting off the voices of District residents in matters directly affecting their own interests. That's the way it used to be. It still is.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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