Last Thursday marked the end of another round in the ongoing struggle of the residents of the District of Columbia for full rights of American citizenship. On Aug. 22, the seven- year period for ratification of the constitutional amendment proposed by Congress in 1978 to give the District two senators and a voting congressman ran out. The most apt quotation I can think of as the bell tolls on this hapless effort is what Gen. Stilwell said when he got run out of China early in World War II: "It was a hell of a beating."
But only a round has been lost, not the whole match.
Heaven knows, no one has ever given a sensible reason to continue the District of Columbia's disenfranchisement. We are not too small an entity for representation in Congress (D.C. has more voters than six states). We are not too poverty- stricken to be represented (only one state pays a higher per-capita income tax). We are not too lacking in national patriotism to be represented (more D.C. citizens died in Vietnam than did those of 10 states).
Sure, the District is likely to send two black, liberal, urban Democrats to the Senate. But whose business is that except our own? Citizens in a democracy have a right to vote for those who are to govern them and, as the Supreme Court has so categorically stated, "The exercise of rights so vital to the maintenance of democratic institutions . . . cannot constitutionally be obliterated because of a fear of the political views of a particular group of bona-fide residents."
So, if the other side had no arguments, how come we got shellacked and could obtain ratification by only 16 state legislatures when we needed 38?
First, a constitutional amendment has historically been ratified only when there's a favorable national consensus -- and that means a two- party consensus. We never had it. No Republican-controlled chamber of any state legislature voted to ratify the amendment.
Second, we never even had the resources to expose the fact that the other side had no arguments. Immoral and unconstitutional arguments flourish in the ignorance and apathy of darkness.
In fact, I have come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that the D.C. business and propertied community, while paying lip service to the voting rights amendment, actually prefers the status quo without congressional representation. That community now can deal directly with the powers on Capitol Hill (whom it enjoys wining and dining socially) without having to go through those feared two black, liberal, urban Democratic senators and a congressman to reach Congress. Since that was the only place massive funds could be obtained to support the amendment throughout the 50 states, no real funds were ever available. Oh, yes, small amounts were obtained from the business community by Mayor Barry, but even to the mayor the funds flowed like molasses in January.
But none of this is enough to explain the size of our defeat. The answer must lie deeper, and I suggest it is the fact that the District is about as popular outside the Beltway as the measles. Why do they hate us?
This country apparently assumes that the District of Columbia is composed of nothing more than a bunch of bureaucratic paper-shufflers for the federal government. We ourselves have done blessed little to let the national public know about the citizens who were born here and who will die here, who raise and educate their children here, who build their churches here, who deliver their services here, and above all who struggle as hard as other American citizens to meet their responsibilities and fulfill their dreams here.
Almost nothing is known of the existence in Washington of a strong, vibrant indigenous culture distinct from any federal activity. This image of the District as simply an enclave of federal bureaucracy has been accentuated by the last two presidents, who made the federal government and its workers the targets of their compaigns. President Carter ran against the federal government twice, and President Reagan topped him by calling it part of the problem, not the solution. Only massive resources to let the nation know the facts about the District could have turned this tide, and they just weren't there.
So now what? It would be foolhardy to try another effort at a voting rights constitutional amendment so soon after our overwhelming defeat. But it would be cowardly to give up the struggle to enfranchise our citizens. People said we'd never vote for president, but we do. People said we'd never vote for mayor, city council or school board, but now we vote for all of them. And just as certainly one day we'll vote for two D.C. senators and a congressman.
There are difficult problems in obtaining statehood for the District and voting representation in Congress through that route. But it is the only game in town today, and I suggest all amendment supporters enlist in the cause of statehood and give it a fair try.