Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Case for D. C. Statehood

When it comes to the recycling of ideas, everything old is new again in Washington. I guess that also pertains to ideas concerning what to do with the District of Columbia itself.

In today’s Washington Post, Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate argues the case in favor of making the District part of Maryland. He regards this as a viable alternative to making the District the 51st state.

By making the District a part of Maryland, he argues, it would receive full federal representation, have a voice in determining Maryland’s elected statewide leaders, and have the right to “determine its own budget, establish city governing policies and be part of the taxation and spending regime of the state.”

Gans regards the idea as a “no brainer.” Well, this is not the first time a similarly brainless idea has been floated.

When I worked on Capitol Hill in the 1990s, Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula floated a proposal to “retrocede” to Maryland territory the state gave to the federal government in 1791 to create the nation’s capital.   

This prompted the then-four GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation to pen a letter to Speaker Gingrich expressing their opposition.

“We believe that this proposal, if implemented, would have a dire impact on the governmental process in our state,” the four GOP representatives wrote at the time. The objections they raised to Regula’s proposal also apply to Gans somewhat different plan now.

The first pertains to process. Article 1, Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution gives the states the authority to cede voluntarily land to the federal government for the purpose of creating a national capital. However, it does not give the federal government authority to compel any state to take the land back.

The only historical precedent for retrocession dates to 1846, when the commonwealth of Virginia reclaimed the land it originally granted the federal government. But the citizens of Virginia (acting through a referendum) and the Virginia State Legislature approved the retrocession before Congress acted.

For Gans’ proposal to succeed, the citizens of Maryland would need to follow a similar approval process. For a host of different reasons, it is fanciful to assume this would ever happen.

Additionally, the 23rd Amendment to the U. S. Constitution gives the District three electoral votes in presidential elections. If it were to become a part of Maryland, the District would presumably become part of Maryland’s 11 electoral votes (factoring in Maryland’s new  congressional seat). Still, a constitutional amendment would be needed to repeal the 23rd Amendment, triggering a long, cumbersome ratification process.

The second objection pertains to the budgetary and fiscal impacts bestowing the District onto Maryland would have.

The District of Columbia’s entrenched social problems – high crime, failing schools, urban blight, and a shrinking tax base – have exacted a heavy burden on its residents.  It is unreasonable to assume that Maryland, presently wrestling with its own budgetary woes, can solve the District’s deep-rooted problems. The state of the nation’s capital is a national shame, but it is a national responsibility as well.

In the early 1960s, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, researching the constitutionality of D. C. home rule, determined that any attempt to retrocede the District violated the intentions of the founding fathers, who “attached fundamental importance to the establishment of a permanent seat for the National government which was not and could never be under the control of any state.”

I think Bobby Kennedy’s conclusions were right then, and that they are still right today. Therefore, I have come to believe that the only proper resolution to the issues of autonomy and representation for the District is to make it the 51st state. Indeed, the only way to make the District immune to the pressures of any state is to give it statehood itself.

That said, I think that any statehood proposal for the District must include two necessary elements.

First, the District needs the kind of tax base which will allow it to tackle the poverty and related social burdens which have come to define it. Therefore, I propose that the state of “New Columbia” include all or part of what is presently Montgomery County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia. Many of the residents in these communities already earn their livelihood in the District, meaning they have a personal stake in the District’s health and well-being.

Second, a small federal enclave consisting of the U. S. Capitol complex, the White House, and the various office buildings and monuments should be designated. This would keep the federal district autonomous and apart from undue state influences.  Its relationship to the state of New Columbia around it would be akin to Vatican City’s status with Rome.

I realize that this proposal will be seen as controversial if not heretical coming from a Republican. Still, I think the people who will oppose it the most will be members of the Democratic establishment in Virginia and Maryland who would not want their influence diluted by the loss of two reliably Democratic areas.

The tax bases of both states would take a corresponding hit as well. I do not necessarily see this as a bad thing. This would force Democrats in Annapolis to do something they are always reluctant to do: live within the state’s means. It would also create a real sense of urgency around the need to wage successful economic development and job growth efforts.

But in politics, winning proposals achieve the right thing by doing the smart thing. Creating a new District-centric state, while giving it the tax dollars it needs to manage its own affairs, achieves both these objectives.

1 comment:

  1. Accurate assessment except for suggesting DC's blighted. DC's done a role reversal the last ten years and the average salary in DC is now higher than that of Montgomery County: