Constitutions historically and traditionally are lofty documents. No greater example of that can be seen than in the Constitution of the United States, one of the great documents of the world. But to find an example of the pliability of such documents, or the gap between goals and reality, one need go no further than that same Constitution.
The Constitution was adopted for use in 1789, and its preamble remains a jewel: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America."
The strength of the document has been in its insightfulness, its ability to evolve. Indeed, it is the longest standing constitution in the world. Its signers built into it an ability to change and to meet the needs of the people at different times.
Thus, the Constitution has been amended many times--most notably in 1791, when the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, were added. And it has taken more than 200 years to get the document where it is today with other interpretations still being hotly debated -- witness the recent unsuccessful battle over the Equal Rights Amendment.
The point here is that constitutions are starting points. They are living documents that evolve with time and circumstances to meet the needs of people. That is the essence of the Democratic process, an essence embodied in the U.S. Constitution.
That is why it is so unfair that the District of Columbia's proposed statehood constitution, Washington's bid to take a step toward transferring local governance from the federal bureaucracy to the District's residents, is being lambasted so mercilessly. True, it is a lofty and ideal document. But probably no more than many another constitution.
Yes, there are a few problems with the D.C. constitution, yet it is important to remember that this document is written on paper, not cast in stone. Its appearance on the Nov. 2 ballot for citizen approval is a way to get on the table a working draft that can absorb the city's disparate voices. After the initiative is passed, the City Council is expected to call public hearings on proposed amendments that can be passed on by voters in the future.
There is an awful lot to be said about this constitution. In general, I favor the document because I feel it is structurally sound. There are some philosophical problems, yet I line up with those who feel voters should cast a "yes" vote on Tuesday. The constitution is not as outlandish as its critics would have us believe.
Probably the most controversial provision, for instance, is Section 20 of Article 1, which stipulates that "every person shall have the right to employment." Critics call it idealistic, impractical, and expensive. But isn't it really a goal, not an obligation? I don't find it at all hard to support the concept of full employment as an appropriate goal. Persons of good will may disagree. But we are already meeting the basic human needs of many who are unable to work with welfare and other programs--at least we were before Reaganomics.
Happily, the list of endorsers of the constitution is growing: The D.C. Democratic State Committee, the Washington Urban League, Ward 1 Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO and newspapers such as the Washington Afro-American and the D.C. Gazette.
Radical? "If anything," says the Greater Washington Chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, which supports passage of the document, "the delegates to the statehood constitution convention should be branded as plagiarizers in the first degree. They weaved provisions from dozens of state constitutions and court decisions into a patchwork Constitution of the State of New Columbia."
The statehood constitution embodies the ideals of the cross section of Washington residents who framed it. Rejecting the document as not being pragmatic, practical or politically feasible would be a mistake.