I was sitting around with a group of friends the other evening when somebody expressed surprise that the House of Representatives has moved to the verge of voting in the fall on a bill to make the District the 51st state. "What we really need is representation in both Houses of Congress," said one man, a transplanted New Yorker who has lived in Washington for seven years. "Statehood is . . . well, it's so abstract!"
As my friend spoke, I thought about some of the people who had made statehood a very concrete proposition for many of us who had lived here longer than he had. I thought of Julius Hobson, the late civil rights advocate who began advocating statehood in the early 1970s; I thought of the venerable D.C. Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), and of the leading proponent of the current drive -- Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.).
Finally, I broke in. "Listen, let me tell you why I think the issue is full citizenship rights, not simply full representation."
My friend looked a little miffed, as if I was about to denigrate his intelligence.
"The only problem with just having representation on the Hill, among other things," I said, "is it would still leave us without budget autonomy, with no control of our court system, with no ability to enter into agreements with neighboring jurisdictions for reciprocal taxation."
Besides, I explained, "That route is a backward step because representation would require the kind of state-by-state ratification we couldn't get in 1978."
But of course my friend wasn't convinced. "It's just that statehood sounds so . . . radical. I mean, in the beginning people were talking about having us taxpayers actually guarantee a job for everybody!"
I looked at him. "But you know as well as I do that all of that has been changed in the bill that Congress is going to vote on."
At this point, another transplanted New Yorker chimed in, recalling how she felt about the monuments, White House and federal buildings on her first visit here. "I guess I'm a little concerned that people who came like I did at first would lose the experience of being in their nation's capital," she said.
"Whoa there," I interjected, putting down my glass. "Nobody's going to lose the nation's capital. What would happen is that the size of the District would simply be reduced. And there's a logical reason for doing it because Congress and the president have already carefully defined the land area they think is necessary for the proper functioning of the federal government. It's called the federal enclave. They did that 12 years ago when we got home rule."
Nobody looked convinced, so I tried to think of another way to put it.
"You know, the federal enclave and New Columbia would be like the Vatican and Rome. In fact, did you know that the size of the Holy See was reduced from all of Rome to the Vatican? People can still visit all the monuments and government institutions, but they'll be within the boundaries of the federal enclave. But they can stay at the Hilton in the District, er, I mean in New Columbia, or the Marriott in Crystal City."
I looked around at the friend who was worried about the abstraction of statehood.
He spoke up. "Well, I just don't think we have the financial base to be a state."
I shook my head back and forth. "Uh uh . . . not so. For one thing, the feds will still require the kind of services the city has been delivering for 12 years under home rule. If the District government didn't deliver them, somebody else would have to. So it's not likely the feds would cut back on the federal payment because it has concluded after years of experience that it is better to contract with the D.C. government than anybody else."
By this time I was feeling in slightly hostile territory. "Hey, doesn't it bother you that the 630,000 of us who live here are the only residents of a capital in a democracy in the world who don't have both local self-determination and national representation? Don't you think you deserve full citizenship rights?"
My friend, the skeptic, nodded his head. "Of course, I do. But, well . . . .
I asked him if he was going to help Fauntroy build his national constituency for statehood by responding to his call for every District resident to send him five names of friends from around the country he could ask to have their member of Congress support statehood.
"Listen," he said, "I'm a realist. Why waste five names? Even if Fauntroy manages to get the bill through the House, it would take a miracle for him to get it through the . . . Senate."
"Listen," I told him, "When we get statehood, we just might send you back to New York."