Committee for the Capital City
PO Box 77443
Washington, DC 20013-8443
Roger K. Lewis, "A Marriage Between D.C. and Maryland Could be the Start of a Beautiful Relationship," 9/1/1998
The Washington Post 9/1/98
A Marriage Between D.C. and Maryland Could be the Start of a Beautiful Relationship
Roger K. Lewis
Exhaustive and exhausting journalistic accounts, analyses and discussions of the Starr report and the Clinton presidency have consumed this city, effectively eclipsing other stories. One of the stories drowned out by the media cacophony was the filing this week of a lawsuit in federal court demanding voting rights on Capitol Hill for District residents.
I may be a voice in the wilderness, but it seems to me that the constitutional issues raised by this lawsuit are ultimately far more important, especially to Washingtonians, than the constitutional issues concerning President Clinton's possible impeachment.
Can anyone doubt that District residents should be given rights to representation in Congress, and that such rights are long overdue?
Yet this suit is only a tactical move to reshape Washington politically and economically. It still doesn't address lingering structural questions debated energetically just a few years ago when the District's financial and managerial crisis was most severe. Should the District continue as a federal district, become a state or a commonwealth, or be retroceded to Maryland?
The suit, filed by 57 D.C. residents, with D.C. Corporation Counsel John M. Ferren and the law firm of Covington and Burling providing pro bono legal services, claims that the District's lack of voting representation in Congress violates the equal protection and due process provisions of the Constitution. It asks the court to find that D.C. citizens have a constitutional right to vote for members of the House and Senate.
However, the suit reportedly avoids addressing exactly how such voting representation should be achieved, leaving that to Congress and, if Congress fails to act, to the court.
Legally, this was perhaps the appropriate strategy, but it clearly sidesteps the critical and complex question of political structure.
Therefore, let me repeat what I wrote a few years ago in this column: Of all the structural options, retroceding to Maryland the District of Columbia, except for a small federal district at the core, may be the most sensible solution. In this scenario, the reshaped District would encompass essentially the Capitol and Supreme Court, the Mall and the White House. The only resident of the federal district would be the president of the United States.
And now that the District's financial and managerial health are much improved, the time may be ripe again to consider seriously the merits of retrocession.
The basic and compelling arguments for retrocession made previously haven't changed:
It would completely resolve the voting and congressional representation issue, because residents of Washington, a city in Maryland, would vote for Maryland's senators and representatives on Capitol Hill.
The elected government of the city of Washington - its mayor and council - would be genuinely empowered and able to function effectively, within the framework of state law, like the governments of all other American cities. As a city in a state, Washington would gain a much greater degree of home rule and masterly of its own fate than it ever could achieve as a disenfranchised, paternalistically managed federal district.
Retrocession of Washington to Maryland would relieve the Congress of the costly, onerous and now anachronistic responsibility for governing a large, complex city, the scope of which the framers of the Constitution surely never envisioned.
Historically and geographically, Washington logically belongs in Maryland, just as Arlington was deemed to belong logically in Virginia when it was retroceded during the last century.
Remarrying the District and Maryland probably would be a win-win situation economically for both the city and the state. Despite obvious and persistent problems related to delivery of municipal services, schools, poverty and crime, the nation's capital is fundamentally a healthy, prosperous city.
Compared with most cities, including Baltimore, Washington has a sizable middle-class and upper-middle-class population, a large and stable base of government and private-sector employment and a substantial income and tax base. Negative publicity and mistaken impressions cannot alter the fact that Washington is a very livable place and could become even more so were it able to function as a normal municipality.
The impediments to retrocession are primarily political, a reflection of natural loyalties, pride and self-interest, coupled with skepticism and mistrust.
Statehood for the District, the highest level of jurisdictional sovereignty under the federal system, continues to be an aspiration of many Washingtonians. They would argue that becoming a city in Maryland not only falls far short of statehood, but also diminishes the historical status and autonomy of Washington as the federal capital.
Despite potentially favorable economic consequences of retrocession, many Marylanders are likely to assume that acquiring the city of Washington would be a financial burden. Residents of Baltimore might worry about admitting to the state a second large metropolis competing with Baltimore for state resources and public attention. Maryland Republicans certainly would balk at adding to the state several hundred thousand liberal-leaning urban voters, most of whom are democrats. And even Maryland Democrats might be nervous about inevitable shifts in the geopolitical landscape that would accompany the acquisition of Washington.
Successfully dealing with these political obstacles requires that all concerned governments - federal, state and city - first ensure that citizens understand fully the costs and benefits of retrocession. Unless consequences are known and perceived to be favorable, no legislative body would vote for such a momentous change in the status quo.
Especially critical would be spelling out convincingly the economic implications, since no one would support retrocession unless the financial prospects are positive. To be persuasive, economic evaluations would have to be carried out objectively by disinterested analysts rather than by agencies and officials of the affected governments. Likewise, both Washingtonians and Marylanders would have to be persuaded that the merger really would elevate the status of both the city and the state.
The other key to selling skeptical people on the idea of retrocession would be a credible implementation plan. Retrocession could not occur overnight. It would require a period of transition and adaptation, a kind of marriage engagement period lasting several years. The state of Maryland and the city of Washington would have to work hard to get to know each other. During such a transition period, all the misgivings about living together, all the governmental kinks and bugs, would be revealed and resolved.
Given how governments work, just changing all the stationery could take a year or two.
As this lawsuit for voting rights proceeds, let's hope that the future geopolitical structure of Washington is simultaneously considered. If Washingtonians are entitled to vote, then they also are entitled to live either in a state or in a city in a state.
(Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.)