The Worst Legislative Body in the World?

The good news: Philadelphia City Council isn’t as inept as it used to be. The bad news: That’s a low, low bar

In Philadelphia politics, the mayor’s annual budget speech has the feel of a State of the Union address, writ puny. It’s the one occasion all year when the chief executive must show up in City Council to explain himself before a body best known for fistfights, indictments, long holidays and easy reelections. On budget day, though, the gilded chamber is in full Pageant of Democracy mode. Before the address, the Council president appoints a committee of members to escort the Great Man — who actually works just two flights below — into the room. Ordinarily empty galleries teem with visitors. The stage is set for some serious oratory. “Madam President,” bellows the Council sergeant-at-arms, sporting a costume that looks swiped from Hogwarts School, “the mayor has arrived!”

Most years, the mundane specifics make the grandiosity look goofy. Hizzoner details a measly series of budgetary nips and tucks: some belt-tightening here, a new initiative there, a few complicated financial dangers lurking over there — the basic stuff of local governance. Council members oppose the cuts, cheer the goodies, and, by the time they leave for their long summers down the Shore, give the mayor most of what he wants.

By these standards, the drama surrounding Michael Nutter’s 2009 budget address was downright Shakespearean. With an imploding national economy and a barren city bank account, the Mayor announced plans to hike taxes on property owners and freeze wages for the city’s 23,000-member workforce — changes guaranteed to discomfit even the most pliable legislative body. More dramatically, he delivered an institutional kidney punch to the legislative branch: Council members, he said, should give up their city cars and forgo the lucrative retirement-incentive program known as DROP. Onlookers tittered. At long last, a mayor was calling out City Council for being the self-protecting, parochial slobs that Nutter’s bien-pensant base had always known them to be.

If the mayoral diss was surprising, the ensuing scrum was fully predictable. Editorial boards cheered. Council members recoiled. And the general public — traditionally blasé about insider privileges — collectively shrugged.

And then a funny thing happened. City Council, the perennial Washington Generals of Philadelphia politics, won the political war that followed. It wasn’t exactly a great day for representative government: The cars would stay, no one would voluntarily drop DROP, and the Mayor would be on his own when it came to union wages. But the legislative branch won on the year’s meaty issues, too, killing the property tax plan and going to court to establish the idea that it had to sign off on library cuts — thereby snatching back a chunk of the institutional power that has made Philly’s the strongest of strong-mayor forms of government.

A year later, when a chastened Nutter returned for his 2010 address, he had morphed into the champion of city services. Instead of reaching for Council’s car keys, he offered individual shout-outs to each of its 17 members: Northeast Republican Brian O’Neill was feted for being “an active, active, active member of the zoning code commission”; his colleague Frank Rizzo got props for having “pushed for the cell-phone lot that we now have at the Philly International Airport.” And of course the Mayor would be willing to compromise on budget details, he told reporters afterwards. That’s what partners do, after all.