Committee for the Capital City
PO Box 77443
Washington, DC 20013-8443
Lawrence H. Mirel, "Farewell D.C., Welcome to the Free State," 2/25/1996
The Washington Post
Sunday, Final Edition
Section: Outlook: Page C01
Farewell D.C., Welcome to the Free State; If Washington Joined Maryland, Everyone Would Come Out Ahead
By: Lawrence H. Mirel
As the District of Columbia teeters toward fiscal collapse while local officials, the financial control board and Congress scramble to keep it afloat, people are asking, "Isn't there a better way?" There is. Washington should be a city in the state of Maryland. Such a move would be good for Maryland, good for the Congress and good for District residents.
The idea of "retrocession" has been raised before, and quickly snuffed out for political reasons. That is likely to be the immediate reaction again. But circumstances have changed. Now there's a strong case to be made that Maryland would be foolish not to absorb the District, just as the District residents would be mistaken not to go. And for Congress, saddled with a problem it doesn't want, there's no better answer.
Returning Washington to Maryland - from whence it came 200 years ago - has the advantage of being both morally right and politically feasible. While not the perfect solution to the District's problems - there is no perfect solution - it goes a long way to alleviating most of the civic and economic inequities that have existed here for the last two centuries.
When the District was created in 1791, from land ceded by the states of Maryland and Virginia, it included the self-governing cities of Georgetown and Alexandria. From the beginning, members of Congress expressed concern over the injustice of taking away these citizens' voting representation in Congress, and petitions to retrocede the territory back to Maryland and Virginia were introduced and debated as early as 1803. In 1846, under intense pressure from the citizens of Alexandria, the Virginia portion of the District was returned to Virginia.
That change provides both a precedent and an instructive example. Citizens there have political rights and have fared well as part of the state of Virginia. Virginia has also benefited as the region that includes Arlington County and Alexandria has become an economic powerhouse and major source of tax revenue for the state. Returning the original Maryland portion of the District to Maryland would provide similar benefits to the state and the city.
The logic of retrocession is compelling. While the advantages to District residents and to Congress are more easily enumerated, Maryland has much to gain.
Washington would provided a needed economic boon to Maryland. The state is currently competing fiercely, and not always successfully, for jobs and industry with other states, notably Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and North Carolina. Washington, which for all its problems is still a world-class financial and political center well-positioned to thrive in a global economy, would do much to bring business and revenue to Maryland, revitalize the Port of Baltimore and bring fruition to the much discussed but never realized "Washington-Baltimore corridor." It would make Maryland the dominant force in what is now the nation's fourth largest regional market.
Former Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer supported the idea of retrocession for just these reasons. As governor he had traveled to East Asia to promote Maryland as a place for international businesses to locate their American operations. He found it difficult to explain what Maryland was, and many people did not know much about Baltimore. He aroused the most interest when he said that Maryland was "near" Washington. His conclusion: If Maryland could say that it was the home state of Washington, the national capital, it would truly have something to sell.
Those same economic advantages should appeal to the current governor. Parris Glendening owes his job in part to his strong showing in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. He and the Democrat-majority legislature will surely take notice of the fact that District voters are largely Democrats. The influx of D.C. voters, however, would not be so large as to permanently distort the Maryland political landscape. D.C.'s population has declined to the point where it would only be the fifth largest entity in Maryland, after the city of Baltimore and Montgomery, Prince Georges and Baltimore counties.
While the District does have a sizable population of poor people who need services, it also has a remarkably wealthy population overall, with the highest per capita income in the nation ($35,541). District residents currently pay more than $1.6 billion a year in income and property taxes (also the highest per capita). The inclusion of the city of Washington would make Maryland the 15th largest state, would increase both its average per capita income (Maryland's is now $27,375) and its overall level of educational attainment. It would provide Maryland with at least one additional member of Congress and would put the heart of the region's economic base - and still the major source of its employment - within the jurisdiction of the state.
The logistics of consolidation would not be difficult. Maryland surrounds the District on three sides. There are already government services that cross state lines, such as rail, Metro and bus transportation, water services and sewage treatment. The underlying common law of Maryland still applies in the District.
Those are the positives of retrocession. Maryland residents also have to look at the negatives of doing nothing. Like it or not, Maryland cannot ignore what happens to the District. To the extent that the District declines, Maryland communities will be hurt. Yet instead of working together, these jurisdictions too often fight among themselves, engaging in an unproductive battle for each others' jobs and wealthy residents. Cooperation, instead of competition, would be greatly facilitated over sports arenas, hotels, convention centers and other attractions.
If the District cannot provide necessary services, District residents - poor as well as middle class - will migrate to Maryland, a process that has already begun. Maryland, along with Virginia, has so far prevented the imposition of a tax on its citizens who work in the District, but such a tax is always a possibility, and it would be very costly to the state.
On the other hand, if Washington became a Maryland city, the threat of a commuter tax would disappear, and Maryland would benefit from taxes paid by Washington residents to the state treasury. In return, Maryland, by relieving the local government of the need to provide state as well as municipal services, would allow Washington to rid itself of some very costly government functions that no other city provides. Without those state functions, Washington has a chance to be a first-rate city.
Retrocession would bring many benefits to Washington residents as well. They would be full citizens of a sovereign state. They would have voting representation in both the U.S. Senate and House. They would still be residents of the nation's capital city; the "special character" that comes from that unique circumstance would not change. By divesting itself of responsibility for state functions, the municipal government could concentrate its energy and resources on making much needed improvements in its schools, trash pick up police protection and emergency service.
Properly promoted by Maryland, which would have ever incentive to do so, Washington could experience an economic boom far beyond anything possible under the present circumstances. The existing competition between the District and Maryland over hotel accommodations, medical facilities, sports complexes and other businesses could be turned into cooperation.
For Congress, retrocession would relieve the national legislature of a headache it doesn't want: the responsibility of overseeing state and local government for an unrepresented people. The idea that Congress should directly rule the Capital City was flawed from the beginning, as members of Congress noted at the time. Rep. John Smilie of Pennsylvania, for example, asked on the floor in 1801 why the House would agree to disenfranchise some thousands of persons (the citizens of Georgetown and Alexandria) of their political rights:
"Not a man in the District would be represented in the government, whereas every man who contributed to the support of a government ought to be represented in it; otherwise his natural rights were subverted, and he left, not a citizen, but a subject. It was a right which this country, when under subjection to Great Britain, thought worth making a resolute struggle for, and evinced a determination to perish rather than not enjoy."
Here's how retrocession would work. The "District of Columbia" would shrink to a federal enclave consisting of the capitol grounds, the Mall and the White House, to be run directly by Congress. That would meet the constitutional requirement that Congress "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) … as may become the seat of government of the United States …" and would avoid the need for a constitutional amendment. When the Virginia portion was retroceded in 1846, no constitutional amendment was required by the same reasoning.
What's left would be the city of Washington, to be reincorporated into Maryland, as a "home rule" city, like Baltimore. Its residents would become citizens of Maryland with full political rights, including the right of representation in the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis and the right to vote for Maryland senators and representatives to the national Congress.
This change in legal status could be brought about by simple legislation enacted by Congress "returning" the Maryland portion to the state (a bill to accomplish this has already been introduce by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and simple legislation by the Maryland legislature accepting the return of the territory.
Once the legal changes are in place, various administrative regulations would be needed to integrate the government services provided under the new system. The city of Washington would continue to have a mayor and a city council responsible for municipal functions such as police and fire protection, trash collection and public schools. State functions, such as motor vehicle licensing, the licensing of banks and insurance companies, hospitals and doctors, would be transferred to the state. District residents would be eligible to attend Maryland state schools.
Other state functions, such as prisons, Medicaid and child welfare, would also be transferred to the state. In return, residents of Washington would pay income and sales taxes to the state government of Maryland, but at Maryland rates, which are substantially below current district rates. The cost savings by combining currently duplicated state services would provide a net gain to Maryland while reducing the taxes on District residents.
These changes would be phased in over a period of years. Maryland would need the assistance, both technical and financial, of the federal government, which would have to recognize, and provide for, both the short-term transition costs and the longer term federal impact costs. In the long run, the federal government would save money.
Making all this happen would not be without its problems. Among the problems to be worked out would be the District's huge pension liability for former federal workers who became District employees when the current "home rule" government was set up. The consolidation of some government functions, particularly social services, will need careful management. But these issues can be negotiated.
What's not negotiable is the fact that something must be done. Retrocession may not be the perfect solution. It's merely preferable to every other alternative.
(Lawrence Mirel is president of the Committee for the Capital City)