THE BASIC CASE for statehood is so direct that it defies elaboration: There is simply no other way, save retrocession to Maryland, that D.C. residents can finally and irrevocably become full citizens of the United States.
Some critics have suggested that the framers of the Constitution never meant us to be, that the democratic principles they professed were intended for all Americans except for us. Well, the history of this country since those days has been, in part, the story of getting rid of the except fors in our principles: We no longer say except for people who don't own property, except for blacks, except for women. If we had continued to restrict ourselves to the limits of 18th century vision, this would be a bitter and disreputable land. But there's still a lot of unfinished business and high on the list is discrimination against persons by reason of their residence in Washington D.C.
Strikingly, it is the one form of discrimination that is specifically condoned by the Constitution. This fact leads some to conclude that the discrimination has propriety as well as legal protection. In truth, it is an illogical appendage from a day when all the residents of D.C. could barely have filled a quarter of the seats in RFK Stadium. Further, it is totally inconsistent with other efforts by the government that perpetuates the discrimination. Here we've got the federal government running around the country telling business, universities and day care centers what they've got to do to make life fairer to blacks, Latinos and women while right under its bureaucratic nose is the largest black city of America being told it can't have the same rights of other cities and its mostly black officials being told that their power is properly limited. It's the biggest potential affirmative action case in America, but no one takes it to court because it's "constitutional."
So that's where those of us in the statehood movement started: the Constitution.
The interesting thing about the constitutional provision permitting this discrimination is that it defines the maximum size of the federal district but not its minimum size. For example, D.C. used to include Alexandria and Arlington but prior to the Civil War this land was ceded to Virginia.
Short of amending the Constitution to straighten things out (and we have seen the pitfalls of such an approach with ERA and the congressional representation amendment) we figured the easiest route was simply to redefine the District so that it would include only the unpopulated area of the Mall, stretching from the Supreme Court to the Lincoln Memorial (This very area was, in fact, picked up in the home run charter legislation and designated as the "Federal Enclave."). Such a move would leave the rest of the city constitutionally positioned to apply for statehood.
Ten years ago a lot of people considered statehooders slightly crazy. For all the long years of discussions of the city's need for "home rule" there was a fatalistic presumption that home rule would actually mean something less than that. The idea of true equality seemed a radical one.
But there is nothing radical about statehood. It's happened 37 times since the first 13 colonies got together. Further, the Constitution goes out of its way to make it simple. It has been far easier to create new states and permit their residents to vote than it was, for example, to give blacks and women the right to vote. The Constitution also foresees alterations in the boundaries of states and provides for new states to be formed out of old. The Union was not set in concrete, but established as a flexible alliance of geographical units that could be adjusted as times required.
Those in the statehood movement are asking that we make use of this flexibility and follow the very traditional, very American way of dealing with status problems: by asking Congress to pass legislation that will grant us permanent statehood -- one bill Congress can't repeal.
As time has gone on, more and more residents of D.C. have come to agree with this approach. Many, especially politicians, held back waiting for the public support to develop. But since 20,000 voters signed petitions for the statehood initiative this November, the pros -- the pols, the union leaders, the civic elite -- have been climbing abroad. The endorsers now include the mayor, a majority of the city council and school board and nine leading labor union officials.
There are still, however, residual doubters. Aside from those who have economic reasons for liking things the way they are and those who have psychological reasons why they can't accept a black entity as a state, much of the criticism has come from those involved in the fight for the voting representation amendment. Some of this has political roots, such as the animosity between Walter Fauntroy and the late Julius Hobson Sr. Some has been a tactical debate: Do you go for representation first and then, if at all, for statehood? Or do you demand what you really want and need from the start? These are the sort of questions that history judges best and, besides, the statehood question is going to be on the ballot anyway and if you vote against it the reaction around the country may well be, "See, those folks in D.C. like things the way they are." Voting for statehood will not hurt the representation amendment; voting against it will.
I'll admit it; the statehood movement got the initiative on the ballot without checking with the backers of the representation amendment, but the backers of the representation amendment got it through Congress without checking with the voters. So we're even and that's politics.
It would be unfortunate, though, if the advocates of the two approaches let tactical and political irritations mar the substance of the issue. The substance is whether we, the voters of D.C., want full equality with other Americans through statehood, not whether the self-determination folks or the statehooders were the most prescient tacticians. If our will proves politically unattainable for the present, we'll find that out soon enough. If there are hidden constitutional problems, that is for the Supreme Court to decide; we don't need any lower court rulings from the League of Women Voters or Walter Fauntroy. If we find, after the long discussions of the constitutional convention, that we cannot agree among ourselves or that, for some obscure reason, we would rather not have full freedom, we simply need not proceed further. Even if there were absolutely no chance of D.C. ever becoming a state for whatever political, constitutional or economic reason, the initiative would still be worth supporting as a rare opportunity to demand justice from the Union.
Our vote should be regarded as a letter of intent rather than a final agreement settling all matters, including whether John Carter Brown gets to stay on the Fine Arts Commission. You may, in coming days, hear arguments that you shouldn't vote for the amendment because this, that or the other problem in the final nature of the state hasn't been resolved. You can safely ignore such criticisms for two reasons. The first is that part of the purpose of a constitutional convention is to deal with such problems. The second is that the logic is similar to someone declining to take a trip to the shore because they can't figure out where they're going to have dinner tomorrow night.
Nevertheless, since a number of criticisms of statehood have been raised over the years, and especially since Del. Fauntroy has made liberal and questionable use of his franking privilege to spread unsupported doubts among his constituency, let's review the bidding on them:
The Maryland Issue: The argument here is that since Maryland ceded the land for the city to the federal government for the purposes enumerated under the Constitution, the feds can't give it away to the new state. This is a dog-in-the-manager argument. Even if the argument were correct, Maryland would have only two choices: either to take us back or go along with statehood for D.C. It couldn't, under any circumstances, say, "We don't want D.C., but we retain our right to control what happens there." "Anyway, the argument isn't correct. D.C. gave away formerly Maryland land to Virginia for National Airport, and the ceded land of South Carolina and Georgia was later subdivided into Mississippi and Alabama without going back to the original owners for permission. Fauntroy and others are simply citing a section of the Constitution that doesn't exist.
The other Maryland issue is the question of retrocession. I have no objection to retrocession in principle -- it has the advantage of improving democracy in two places instead of just one -- but our neighbors are rampantly disinterested. Aside from a longing to see Maryland's senators and its suburban representatives treat us as constitutents rather than as political serfs, I don't see much future in pursuing this course.
The Economic Issue: This argument, pursued for years by Fauntroy and some others, is that we can't afford statehood largely because we would lose the federal payment. Apparently, in Fauntroy's view, the market value of freedom is something less than $500 a head. I cling to the traditional concept that it is worth considerably more.
But no matter. We don't have to worry about it. There is no reason we should lose the federal payment simply because we became a state. The federal payment is not a dowry for subservience; it is a partial settlement for services rendered by the city to the federal government and for land taken from the tax rolls. The need and justification for this payment will not disappear with statehood. In fact, with two senators we can reasonably expect more favorable treatment than we have had in the past. Among colleagues, senators don't argue over small sums of parochially distributed money.
Further, our present status is costing us money. The commuter tax alone would, according to most estimates about equal the size of the federal payment. wUnder our current status we are not allowed to invoke such a tax.
We Have Almost Everything We Need: This strange argument crops up from time to time, most recently in an article by Juan Williams of this journal. The argument ignores the extent of implicit as well as explicit congressional control over the judicial and prosecutorial systems, the agents of the crown placed in key positions of bodies like the zoning commission, Fine Arts Commission and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission and the serious impact of what can be described as anticipatory colonialism. Anticipatory colonalism is the self-denial of ostensible rights because of the fear they might be taken away. Watch the city council and mayor tackling a really controversial issue like pot legalization and you'll see anticipatory colonialism at work. Statehood means never having to say "I'm sorry" to Congress.
The Federal Interest Argument: If you want to make the argument that the federal government is so involved in D.C. that it must maintain control, you must also argue, I think, that the suburban counties should be placed under federal jurisdiction. Further, a state like California, where twice as high a percentage of the state works for the federal government as in D.C., should probably receive special federal status as well, not to mention all federally funded universities, corporations depending on defense contracts, and all communities along the Amtrak right-of-way. Although there is as much "federal interest" in all of America as there was in D.C. 180 years ago, only this city finds itself denied political status because of the federal presence. The principle of "federal interest" is rather selectively applied.
D.C. isn't big enough or doesn't look like a state: First of all, people vote -- not cows, acres or factories. Secondly, while a new state of Columbia would certainly have some novel characteristics, novelty is not unique to the federal system. The only thing Rhode Island and Texas have in common is that they are both states. And Alaska and Hawaii, the last two states admitted, certainly are unlike each other and all their predecessors. There is no legal definition of the geographical or demographic characteristics of a state. Trying to impose one now creates one of the most artificial arguments against statehood. As far as population is concerned, D.C. would be one of the smaller states but by no means the smallest. And it would be larger at admission than any state added to the Union except Oklahoma. Nevada got in with only 40,000 residents.
The Left-over Electors: Should D.C. be admitted as a state, there would be three floating presidential electors, since the redefined District would have no residents. In all likelihood the courts would declare this section moot. If not, the constitutional provision would be rapidly repealed. sIt is an interesting problem, but hardly an important one.
It would take too long: Fauntroy argues that we shouldn't go for statehood because the process takes too long. It may and, if it does, I'm sorry. But if other Americans had shared our delegate's desire for instant gratification, there would still be only 13 states today.
Obviously there are a lot of things to work out. The specific relationship between the federal and local government. Police jurisdiction. Whether we want our neighborhoods organized into villages or townships and so forth. The important thing to remember, though, is that this is part of what the initiative is about: saying yes to statehood and starting to deal with its specifics through the constitutional convention and public discussion. For the moment, you are only being asked to say yes or no to the idea. It's simple, right and, in this not too sanguine election year, it is one vote of which you can definitely be proud.