Committee for the Capital City
PO Box 77443
Washington, DC 20013-8443
Jonathan R. Siegel, "Finding a Home in the Free State," 9/21/1997
The Washington Post
September 21, 1997
Op-Ed; Pg. C10
Finding a Home in the Free State
Jonathan R. Siegel
The District is torn between a fiscal problem and a political one. On one hand, it never can succeed as long as it tries to perform the functions that elsewhere are performed at the state level. On the other, giving those functions to the federal government leaves D.C. residents at the mercy of a legislature in which they have no vote. Relief for this troubled city can come only when residents enjoy what other Americans take for granted: representation in local, state and national government.
Home rule, as adopted in 1975, was doomed to fail. In an attempt to demonstrate its suitability for statehood, the District took on state functions such as running prisons, courts, mental health facilities and Medicaid. This, combined with appalling management, resulted in enormous deficits and a government that couldn't even clean snow off the streets. When the financial control board took over and effectively abolished local democratic institutions, many residents breathed a sigh of relief.
The problem is that the federal government is not the District's equivalent of a state, because it has no political tie to D.C. residents. The predictable result is that when the federal government takes "state" programs off the District's hands, it will demand to make political changes too - changes that do not match local desires.
The first change suggested by President Clinton - taking over the District's prison system - was linked to the imposition of federal sentencing guidelines alien to the District's criminal justice system. Congress tried to force the District to institute a death penalty that residents didn't want. District residents like gun control; Congress doesn't. District residents want health benefits for partners of gay and lesbian city workers; Congress is hostile to that idea. Whatever functions Congress assumes for the city can be expected to undergo significant political change.
So how can the District be relieved of the fiscal burden of state functions while retaining an appropriate degree of political control over those same functions: The answer is obvious and not new - the District must become part of Maryland.
Retrocession wouldn't solve all the District's problems, of course. Strained city-federal relations would in all likelihood be replaced by strained city-state relations because Maryland, like the federal government, likely would have different political tastes from the District's. But at least state officials would have a political incentive to treat the city fairly - after all, Washington would have representatives in Annapolis.
The governor, cognizant of the power of the city's voters, would want to make Washington as happy as possible too. D.C. residents would then have the same degree of control over state functions that is enjoyed by residents of other American cities. At the same time, residents of the District finally would be represented in Congress, ending the shameful practice of taxation without representation.
Retrocession probably would require the consent of both Congress and the Maryland legislature. It might even require a constitutional amendment. A tall order, to be sure, but it has happened before, in 1961, when the 23rd Amendment gave District residents a vote in presidential elections.
Some people object to the idea that the seat of federal government would be primarily in a state. But that is the situation in Canada and Germany, and no hardship seems to have resulted. Alternatively, the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court could be retained in a much-reduced federal district.
Other people say that retrocession would be a white takeover of the District's predominantly African American power structures. But black power would be increased, not reduced, if the city had representatives in the state legislature, if D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton became a real voting member of Congress and if two senators and a governor had to concern themselves with the District's votes.
A congressional takeover of District functions may be fiscally expedient, but it is politically inappropriate. Long-term social, fiscal and political stability for the District cannot be achieved until the District, like other American cities, is part of a state.
Jonathan R. Siegel
(Jonathan R. Siegel is a law professor at George Washington University)