Two old and popular political ideas for the District of Columbia, statehood and representation in Congress, collided at a D.C. City Council hearing recently, and representation seems to have come out ahead - at least for now.
Several advocates of proposals to turn the nation's capital into the State of Columbia testified before the council's Government Operations Committee. They contended that statehood is the only way to put Washingtonians onto the same governmental footing as other Americans.
"How much is political equality worth?" asked Bruce Waxman, representing the D.C. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Answering his own question, he declared: "I don't think you can put a price tag on it."
But a veteran supporter of the statehood idea, Joseph L. Rauh Jr., a labor and civil rights lawyer, urged the council to sidetrack the statehood bill. Rauh is an officer of Self-Determination for D.C., which is lobbying for Senate passage of a constitutional amendment to give D.C. voting membership in both chambers of Congress.
"Statehood will be used as a negative factor against us in the Senate," Rauh testified, "and we should not lose our chance."
"We are moving, we're rolling - don't get in our way."
To a degree, statehood and congressional representation are parallel. But statehood is widely viewed as the more radical measure and more likely to bring resistance in Congress. It would provide near-total governmental autonomy for the city, while representation gives the city full voices in Congress and limited leverage over national policy.
The representation measure would make no change in the existing limited form of municipal home rule, in which the federal government exerts a strong influence over city policy and dominates its budget-making process.
Efforts to gain congressional representation began in the 19th century. Statehood proposals have their roots in the territorial form of government that briefly controlled D.C. from 1871 to 1874. But instead of letting the city evolve into a state, as many territories have done, Congress in 1874 put D.C. under a commissioner form of municipal government.
Council member Hilda Mason, the lone elected office holder of the city's 1,800-member Statehood Party, voiced a plea for statehood at the hearing, as did party officials Lou Aronica and Josephine Butler.
"We must have the power control our own affairs," Mason said. "Entrance into the union as a state would accomplish this end."
After the hearing, Mason admitted to a reporter that she had little hope for approval of the bill this year.
The pending measure still bears the name of its sponsor, the late Julius Hobson Sr., a council member and a founder of the Statehood Party.
It provides for calling a convention at which a state constitution would be drafted. If the document were approved by public referendum, D.C. would then apply to Congress for admission as the 51st state.
The congressional representation proposal requires ratification by three-quarters (or 38) of the 50 states. Statehood could be legally accomplished by a simple act of Congress. That would just require a majority vote in both chambers.