IT'S TIME TO ADMIT total and abject failure. The D.C. Voting Rights Amendment has about as much chance of becoming part of the Constitution as the reinstitution of slavery or the abolition of the progressive income tax. Those of us who choose to live in the District are going to remain second-class citizens as long as the federal union endures. a
This cold, clear exercise in political realism will come as a bitter blow to those ambitious local politicians, like Marion Barry and Arrington Dixon, who preen before their bathroom mirrors each morning and fancy themselves representing this federal enclave, with its shrinking population, in the United States Senate. It will come as a disappointment to D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy and his "impossible dream" of actually getting a vote, as well as a voice, in the House of Representatives.
But for the rest of us, devoid of personal political ambitions, life will go on pretty much as it has in the past. Cars will still be booted and towed. The Farecard machines on the Metro won't work. The summer jobs program will continue to be a laughingstock. The phones will still be answered on the 23rd at the District Building. The local police will still be called upon to separate the pro-and anti-Khomeini demonstrators.
For more than a decade, local political thinking has ossified because of our obsession with full voting representation. Creativity, a scarce resource in the best of times, has been channeled toward such barren enterprises as convincing recalcitrant members of the Utah legislative to vote for the D.C. Amendment. State legislators have far more pressing matters on their minds than the justice of the District's cause -- things like divvying up racing dates and handing out liquor licenses.
What makes the District's current political status so irritating is that a permanent solution to the perennial problem of D.C.'s status is clearly within our grasp. The answer was stated boldly on those hand-written placards raised high by the D.C. delegates at the Democratic National Convention. The slogan, "D.C.: The Last Colony," can be our salvation instead of our lasting shame -- and we can thank Mayor Barry for showing us the way.
Forget such minor irrelevancies as justice and equity. Instead, let's look at the District's situation from the perspective of narrow self-interest. The political status of the District should be designed to achieve two paramount goals -- enhancing the already inflated local real estate values, and getting the tax-paying citizens of Salt Lake City, Dubuque and Biloxi to foot the bill for D.C.'s $409 million municipal deficit.
Hitherto, the District's politicians have been struggling to give us the same political rights as the residents of states like Wyoming. Yet, even with voting senators like Malcolm Wallop and Alan Simpson, the narrow cause of Wyoming self-interest rarely gets much national attention. Full voting rights for the District may have its merits in abstract justice, but, even if achieved, will do little to enhance local real estate values or pay off the municipal debt.
In fact, the only feasible way we can achieve both goals is to emulate the tropical island paradise of Puerto Rico. Two decades of anti-colonial rhetoric at the United Nations has blinded us to the tangible benefits of permanent colonial status.
Take a moment to look dispassionately at the political situation of Puerto Rico. Its residents are citizens who carry U.S. passports and can travel freely throughout our vast country. They benefit from all the much-maligned government social welfare programs ranging from food stamps and Medicaid to child labor laws and OSHA. They elect a colonial governor, who has a much fancier title than Marion Barry, and get to wear funny hats and participate in all the fun and games at the Democratic and Republican conventions. They also get to choose a non-voting delegate to Congress who is given an office and staff, just the same as Walter Fauntroy.
The beauty of life in Puerto Rico is that its residents don't have to do much in exchange for these tangible benefits of citizenship. Thanks to Patrick Henry's cry, "Taxation without representation is tyranny," Puerto Ricans are in the enviable position of being exempt from federal income taxes. rAlthough they are fully protected by American's nuclear umbrella, Puerto Rico can occasionally even pursue its own foreign policy, as its residents did when they sent a team to participate in the Moscow Olympics. And Home rule allows them to levy and collect their own taxes, which has given them the power to encourage the migration of industry through the niftiest collection of tax breaks this side of Kemp-Roth.
Despite this one-sided calculus of benefits, many Puerto Ricans are fixated on becoming a state. Their political naivete is touching and their goal may be achieved in this decade. With the emergence of a large Spanish-speaking population in the SunBelt, the linguistic differences between Puerto Rico and the mainland are fast disappearing. Let them, if they wish, become the 51st state. And let the District alone reap the benefits that come with becoming the last colony.
Mayor Marion Barry deserves plaudits for stimulating interest in this idea through his unorthodox proposals to fund the District's mounting debt. He suggested that D.C. obtain $215 million in emergency loans from an obscure offshoot of the federal government, the Federal Financing Bank (FFB).
The FFB was established in 1973 to consolidate and rationalize direct federal agency borrowing in the money market. But, like so many other seemingly innocuous government agencies, the FFB quickly became somthing different from what its framers had in mind.
These days, some of the nation's leading bankrupts borrow from the FFB at rates much lower than you or I could get at Riggs. New York City borrowed $2.3 billion there, at rates as low as 6 percent, between 1975 and 1978. Other borrowers the FFB has found credit-worthy include the deficit-plagued student loan program, Washington's subway, the Postal Service and the bankrupt Conrail system, which has taken over the Penn Central's freight lines. Even foreign countries like Zaire, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Greece and the Phillipines have gotten to use the money machines at the FFB. The all get loans to buy American-made weapons on the guarantee of the U.S. Defense Department.
But so far the doors of the FFB have remained closed to Marion Barry. The problem is that to qualify for FFB loans you either have to be a goverment agency or get someone in the federal government to cosign your loans. As long as the District raises a ruckus by clinging to its constitutional amendment, it is unlikely that any federal agency will be willing to put its John Hancock on D.C.'s loan application.
What the District should do, instead, is to master the politics of guilt. No more strident calls for representation in Congress. Rather our political leaders should adopt their best Uriah Heep manner and throw themselves on the mercy of the United States Congress. We should acknowledge our political inferiority and beg them to make us a colony just like Puerto Rico. p
If the past is any prologue, the 535 members of Congress, plus the rest of the federal government, will be overcome with remorse. Government agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Railroad Retirement Board will fall over each other in their eagerness to co-sign our FFB loans.
At this moment, we should begin our real push -- the drive to get Cabinet representation for the District of Columbia. If the National Education Association can win the creation of the Department of Education, surely the District can lobby for the creation of a new Cabinet-level Department of Colonial Affairs. Let Wyoming be satisfied with 3 votes out of 535 in the Congress. We in the District would be right up there with Agriculture and Labor and the other special pleaders with our own seat in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
Since most Washington residents only but the Sunday paper for the real estate ads, I can see all the hands waving with the question, "What would colonial status do to property vlaues?"
We would be sitting on the greatest real estate bonanza since the Oklahoma land rush. Everyone, from Bunker Hunt to John Q. Public, would want to establish legal residence in the District to escape the hated federal income tax. Unrestored shells in Anacostia would start at $400,000. Efficiency apartments near DuPont Circle the size of maximum security prison cells would be out of the reach of everyone without inherited wealth.
Within months of formally achieving colonial status, unemployment would be eliminated within the District. As D.C. became the world's greatest tax haven this side of Liechtenstein, industrial plants and new corporate headquarters would fill the skyline. Florida Avenue would be renamed Industrial Boulevard. A drive down U Street would take you past the new General Motors Assembly Plant, the Otis Elevators division of United Technologies and the world corporate headquarters of IBM.
This boom-town atmosphere would transform D.C.'s financial condition overnight. With no federal income taxes to worry about, we could get away with soaking corporations and the wealthy with the highest local taxes in history. We would quickly have a budget surplus outstripping the oil-gotten gains of Alaska.
Some of this windfall tax money could be used to give the District an array of social services that would have made Hubert Humphrey blush. In Adams-Morgan and Shaw, one couldn't go a block without passing a methadone clinic, a rape crisis center, a meals on wheels program or a senior citizen drop-in center, each with its own 12-story, modern, plastic-and-glass office building.
Following the lead of Alaska, the District would take the rest of its tax surplus and remit it to District residents with, say, $500 for each year of residence in this colonial paradise. Within five years, real estate in the District would be so scarce that a movement would be started to sell Rock Creek Park to private developers.
But the benefits of colonial status for the District would not only be material. There would be spiritual rewards as well. Having lost our right to vote for president once again, we would be the envy of our fellow citizens as we were spared the cruel necessity of choosing among candidates like Carter, Reagan and Anderson.