SUPPORTERS of statehood for the District of Columbia say it would be good for what ails us. Unfortunately, that is pure fantasy. More likely, statehood would worsen our existing ills, making the mayor's current financial miseries, among other things, seem like "the good days."
What statehood backers leave out of their lofty language is the sharp difference between the day-dreams they would ask for -- as reflected in the Nov. 4 ballot initiative -- and the reality of what we would get (if anything).
What they would like to do is ask Congress to reduce the nation's capital to a little strip of less than 2 square miles, leaving all else for the new state. A pipe dream.
The minimum area for the capital has been since 1971 the original "City of Washington" as laid out by Pierre L'Enfant and approved by Congress. This covers about 13 square miles bounded by the Potomac River, Rock Creek, Florida Avenue and the Anacostia River. All federal planning and development for a national capital in this century -- the "McMillan Plan" of 1902, the Year 2000 Plan" of 1961 and the present "Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital" -- have relied on the old L'Enfant city as their core.
Now the statehood folks would like us to believe that the Supreme Court would find a little fragment of land along Constitution Avenue as satisfying the constitutional requirement for "a seat of the government of the United States." They also would have us think that simply because D.C. residents might request it, Congress would give up most of the power it has wielded over the existing 67 square miles for 190 years.
What could conceivably support such wishful thinking? Certainly not the national response so far to the proposed constitutional amendment to give District people full representation in Congress.
If statehood advocates think it would be easier to get a majority vote in Congress on statehood than to win ratification of the pending amendment, they do not know how Congress operates. Congressmen respond first to the views of their own constituents. Congress also has a history of jealously protecting its own institutional prerogatives.
More likely, approval of the statehood initiative would confuse and further delay ratification of the D.C. voting rights amendment. That is one reason why Del. Walter Fauntroy is wisely opposing the statehood measure.
Even if, by some magic in some distant future, Congress became receptive to a statehood request from the District, it is still difficult to imagine that it would relinquish the original L'Enfant city area. And that would wreak havoc with the statehood proponents' economic arguments.
The proponents contend that even if Congress ommitted the annual federal payment to the District for lost taxes and extra services, a state could raise taxes that would more than make up for the loss. But the 13-square-mile area of the old city is today the arena for most of the District's governmental and business activity. Without that area, the new state would not even be able to collect existing property and business taxes.
Moreover, a nonresident income tax on Maryland and Virginia residents working in the proposed state would yield little revenue. Most commuters would simply drive across the new state and continue earning their incomes in the exempt federal district.
Statehood advocates also argue that the federal government would contribute federal lands and financial aid, as it has done in the past for other new states. But that policy was aimed at developing an undeveloped frontier by decentralizing authority. A state formed from D.C. would be quite different.
What undeveloped federal lands are there in the District other than Rock Creek and Glover-Archbold parks? Instead of being mostly rural wilderness, as were the earlier states, D.C. is a highly developed urban community, under centralized federal control.
There would also be little reason for the United States to make extra financial contributions, as it did in the earlier state admissions. If Congress won't even give D.C. what it actually owes us in the federal payment, why would it be so much more generous if D.C. were a state?
If all this were not enough, the statehood people seem to be suggesting that something could happen very soon if the initiative were passed. Another fantasy. Keep in mind that New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii all required 40 to 60 years to become states after they first formally petitoned Congress for admission.
Battles for admission of new states have increasingly focused on the struggle for power in Congress, especially in the Senate. For Alaska and Hawaii, decades of bitter controversy were finally brought to a close by a last-minute political deal which allowed both states to enter the Union at the same time. Alaska was expected to elect two Democratic senators and Hawaii two Republicans. The compromise was an effort to keep the existing Senate balance of power unchanged.
Any bid for D.C. representation in Congress must deal with the same issue. And the conflict becomes even more intense, because the District is the nation's capital. Opposition to our voting rights amendment in some state legislatures seems to have hardened around unreasoning objections that D.C. senators might be "too urban, too liberal, to eastern, too Democratic or too black." And D.C. statehood bill would have to overcome the same prejudices in Congress. So those who imagine that it would be easy to get a simple majority vote for such a bill in Congress are simply wandering in a never-never-land.
In short, it is difficult to imagine any serious gain for the District from a statehood drive. Some people, of course, could benefit. Passage of the initiative would provide power and resources to resuscitate the Statehood Party into a working political machine. Jobs and offices with prestige and influence would be available to reward the faithful.
This potential political patronage would include 45 elected delegates to a statehood constitutional convention, 24 appointed members of a Statehood Commission and an equal number of appointments to a Statehood Compact Commission. Then there would be two elected "senators" and a "representative" (with congressional-size budgets and staffs). The single purpose of all these offices would be to promote statehood.
This organization, as an "alternative government," would have an unlimited opportunity for mischief in District affairs without accountability to anyone. Nor does the initiative provide any means for stopping these activities even if D.C. voters should later want to do so.
The initiative would require the D.C. government to support all these offices with funds, facilities and serivices. This might go on for a long, long time, given the history of other statehood efforts.
The District of Columbia is not an undeveloped territory. It is a unique jurisdiction which combines local, state and national responsibilities in a single complex framework. It was created to serve as the national capital, with little thought about the state or local needs of its residents. This federal role has, of course, always dominated the District's development. Local problems have been solved haphazardly, and our state-level needs have been largely ignored.
But the solution to our difficulties is not to fantasize that the past 190 years did not really happen. Making the District into a workable system is a painfully complex and difficult process. And this process must be carefully planned and organized. Let us therefore get on with these real tasks and not waste our time with childish dreams that if we just wish hard enough, all our troubles will go away.