The Statehood Initiative that will appear on the D.C. ballot Nov. 4 has been a subject of strong disagreement around the region, in the city -- and also among the members of the editorial page staff.
The argument of those who would start the District of Columbia toward statehood in next week's election begins with a major premise few people in this area should dispute: District residents ought to have voting representatives in Congress. Then it uses a factual minor premise -- such representation is easier to achieve through statehood than through a constitutional amendment -- as a springboard to a momentous conclusion: the District should seek to become a state.
The simplicity of this argument is as seductive as it is appealing. It equates congressional representation with statehood as if that were the only attribute of a state. And it blithely skips over the constitutional, philosophical and practical questions that lie between its premises and its conclusions.
Those questions should be at the core of any serious discussion about the question on the ballot Nov. 4. If statehood for the District would be unconstitutional or unwise, it should not be sought. If staterhood is politically impossible to obtain, the pursuit of it will be an expensive exercise in futility. The road to statehood is normally long, hard and costly both in dollars and in political and civic leadership. Not without reason did prior generations of Washingtonians reject statehood as the solution to their disenfranchisement.
It takes only a glance at the Constitution to discover that Congress cannot legitmately declare all of the District of Columbia to be a state (unless it moves the national government elsewhere). That document says Congress "shall have" exclusive jurisdiction over the place in which the national government is located.Such jurisdiction could not exist if all of the District were to become a state unless the Constitution were amended.
But, say proponents of statehood, Congress can remove this objection by setting aside a small federal enclave over which it retains jurisdiction -- say, the Mall, the Capitol and the White House -- while granting statehood to the rest of the District. Such an action would appear to square with the precise words of the Constitution. But it would still conflict with the intent of the men who wrote those words.
Behind that particular provision of the Constitution was a desire by its authors to keep the new national government from ever being dependent in any way on a state government. This desire arose from the jealousy that then existed between the states and from an incident in Philadelphia, when the old Continental Congress fled the city after local officials refused to give its members physical protection against a mob.
While the national government is less concerned now about physical protection than it was in 1787, the question could still arise. What if the government of the proposed state of Columbia were sympathetic to a demonstration like the one on May Day 1971 that attempted to close down the city? Would a federal enclave of two or three square miles be large enough to protect the national government if the city stayed neutral?
The matter of jealousy, however, is more important. Those who wrote the Constitution feared that other states would believe, rightly or wrongly, that a state government located in close physical proximity to the national government would have an undue advantage in influencing its deliberations. They agreed informally that the new capital would not be located near a state capital.
Jealousy of that kind still exists. It emerges today in opposition to the voting rights amendment. Why, it is asked in some state capitals, should those bureaucrats in Washington be given two votes in the Senate since they already have so much influence over Congress?
The Supreme Court might ignore these factors, read the language of the Constitution narrowly and sustain an act of Congress granting statehood to a portion of the District. But would Congress ignore them or would it take them into account by drawing the boundaries of the new federal enclave along, say, the Florida Avenue line of the old city of Washington, thus depriving the new state of its economic heart?
Such questions are only part of those matters that need full discussion before the District heads toward statehood. Closely related to them is the impact that a new state of Columbia might have on the fundamental structure of the national government.
A state, after all, is more than just a repository of voting representation in Congress. It is, in our system of government, the ultimate reservoir of governmental power. Each state is equal to every other state; there are are no semi- or partial-states. The federal government, for example, cannot intervene inside a state even to put down a riot without first being asked by the state to do so.
The original states were independent when the union was formed, and various tests of independence -- the capacity for self-government, economic potential, political stability -- have often been applied to applications for statehood. The application of the District of Columbia, because of its geographic size and its dependence on the national government for economic survival, would be different in kind from any previous application.
It is worth remembering that the key compromise that made the Constitution and the union possible related to geographic size. The small states wanted voting equality in the new government; the large ones wanted voting power based on wealth or population. The compromise -- equality of states in the Senate and a population-based House -- has endured well. But it has been strained from time to time. Would a grant of statehood to one city, Washington, with an area smaller than that of all but 10 of the nation's 3,000 counties, tip the balance? Would it lead large and populous states to seek a change in the composition of the Senate?
In New York City, for example, statehood has long been on the fringe of political debate. If Washington were to become a state so its 660,000 residents could have two votes in the Senate -- remember, voting represntation in Congress is the argument for statehood -- would New York City's seven million residents be content to continue sharing two senators with 12 million other New Yorkers? Would California, with a population of more than 20 million, remain content with two senators? Would Texas exercise its existing option to subdivide into new states?
These questions may appear fanciful. They would have been when big cities were the economic under-pinnings of the states. But now that a big city can be a financial drain on the rest of the state, giving it independence might not seem so bad an idea to the state government.
Perhaps the time has come to introduce city-states into American government, but that is not a step to be taken lightly. It would carry with it the seeds of sweeping changes in the federal system.
Even assuming that District voters resolve these issues about the wisdom of seeking statehood in favor of plunging into the process, practical questions remain.
Would a new state of Columbia be economically sound, particularly if the new federal enclave strayed beyond Constitution and Independence avenues?
What is the chance that Congress might grant statehood to the District? How many senators and representatives from states that have rejected or ignored the voting rights amendment would think it politically feasible to give District residents, through statehood, the very thing their states are refusing to give through a constitutional amendment?
What impact would the pursuit of statehood have on the possible ratification of that amendment? Why would any state legislature ratify an amendment giving something to a group of people who may appear to have repudiated it by seeking the same thing in another way?
What would be the costs to the District -- in terms of money and political and civil leadership -- of the pursuit of statehood?
The direct result of a favorable vote on statehood on Nov. 4 will be to divert talents the District needs in its day-to-day operations in pursuit of a probably unreachable goal. Just drafting a state constitution, as Maryland discovered not so long ago, requires months or years of work by a community's most thoughtful citizens.
The ultimate result of a favorable vote will be to kill the voting rights amendment (if it is not already dead) and to delay, while the statehood frolic runs its unsuccessful course, any effort to achieve by other means the only thing the proponents really want: voting representation in Congress.
Neither result is in the best interests of the District or its residents.