If Philly Was Still The Nation's Capital

Posted: December 30, 1994

Suppose that the nation's capital had stayed put on the Schuylkill two centuries ago. Philadelphia could have been November's target of angry U.S. voters, and America's fire-eating new freshmen members of Congress might now be getting off planes at Philadelphia International Airport.

The tens of thousands of lobbyists preparing to greet them with handshakes and re-election campaign checks might have offices lining Locust Street instead of the District of Columbia's K Street (and wouldn't that new locale be symbolic). Philadelphia lawyer jokes, rather than dying out, would be more frequent than ever.

Instead, Washington is the arrogant capital. Philadelphia is the revered ''cradle of liberty," not the despised playpen of 91,000 lobbyists and their staffs, 61,000 members of the District of Columbia Bar, 20,000 congressional staffers, 12,000 journalists and tens of thousands of other professionals. It's no coincidence that seven of the 20 highest per capita income counties are in metropolitan Washington, and Tiffany's knew what it was doing in locating its first-outside-Manhattan branch in Fairfax County, Va., not Swarthmore or King of Prussia.

The hidden benefit is that Philadelphia may have an important new role to play in U.S. politics during the reformist and possibly radical '90s.

Suspicion of capitals is old stuff in this country, of course. If the Founding Fathers saw wisdom in moving the new nation's capital away from Philadelphia's salons and countinghouses, Pennsylvania's wisemen also relocated the state capital - first to Lancaster, then to Harrisburg on the brawling Scotch-Irish frontier. Fear of letting national or state laws be made too close to a major concentration of financial, commercial and political elites is an enduring U.S. political tradition.

Meanwhile, not a few of the Republicans arriving in Washington for the new Congress are letting reassuring sugar plums dance through their heads - that voters were mad at big government and the Democrats, so they won't mind if Republicans continue to cut deals with Washington lobbyists and maybe even forget about term limits.

To be sure, big government is part of what Americans were mad at on Nov. 8, but much of their indignation was also at a capital city where the elected officials believe they know best and usually forget about the grass roots as much as possible.

When seats of government remain in rich environs with hundreds of thousands of lobbyists, lawyers, congressional staffers and journalists dancing attendance, even the greenest member of Congress gets a swollen ego, a taste for upscale French restaurants and a slackening commitment to weekending in Conshohocken or East Stroudsburg.

Polls show clearly that two-thirds to four-fifths of Americans think that six particular groups have too much influence in Washington: corporations, the rich, financiers, lawyers, the media and foreign governments. This tells us something.

The Republicans may make a stab at sandbagging trial lawyers, but when it comes to corporations, financiers and the rich, the GOP is about as likely to crack down on big-money politics and fat-cat lobbyists as New Orleans is to ban the Mardi Gras. Besides, there are already plentiful signs that top Republicans are losing their commitment to procedural promises like term limits and a line-item veto. Even the middle-class tax cuts promised in the Republican Contract with America may have to wait.

The sad truth is that Washington, its interest groups and its rewards,

absorb politicians and their promises like a kitchen sponge absorbs counter grease. The freshman Democratic members of Congress elected as rebels in 1992 were inside-the-Beltway collaborators by 1993, and Bill Clinton, who ran against Washington insiders, was hugging and huddling with them by Inauguration Day.

The Republicans probably won't take much longer. Speaker of the House-to-be Newt Gingrich is already reeling under criticism for signing a $4 million book contract and hiding the names of corporate contributors for whom he's done favors.

But if there isn't much likelihood that people in Washington can change the system, that only means that people in the rest of the nation will have to work harder - including the city where so much of it started two centuries ago. Pennsylvania has a new organization called the Patriot Party pushing empowerment devices like initiative and referendum, and a group in Pipersville, Pa., called the Electronic Congress has already begun holding popular referenda on key issues. In other cases, activists are taking the city's name - like the Philadelphia II project just launched by citizens in Missouri, California and Washington state. They're trying to get voters in the state of Washington to launch and fund a national initiative and referendum effort.

The history of great-power capital cities is distressingly similar, from Greece and Rome down to the London of George III; they don't reform themselves, and they provoke demand, at the very least, for the equivalent of a political revolution. If Washington can no longer blueprint one, maybe Philadelphia can help - again.

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