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.
All arguments over statehood for the District should start with a look at the little green book sent to state legislators around the country asking them to vote for the D.C. voting rights amendment. In the book is a picture of John Hechinger, a fourth-generation Washingtonian, at one of his hardware stores. Below the picture, Hechinger is quoted as saying" "In World War II, I served in the China-Burma-India and Pacific theatres for five years and survived. Despite my military service I was -- and still am -- denied a say in war or peace in America."
Why is John Hechinger denied his fair say? The answer is that, as a District resident, he has no representative to the federal government, no congressman or senators. In all arguments over statehood, that image of John Hechinger is the starting point. It is the point that can't be argued. People who live in the District pay federal taxes, abide by federal laws and serve in the federal army, but they don't have any say in the federal government. In principle, that situation is unacceptable to anyone who believes in democracy. Somehow the citizens of the nation's capital need to be represented in the federal government.
But from that common plank -- I think most people would agree with it -- the argument splinters. Some people say the District is too small, too black, too urban and lacking the industrial base necessary to become a state. Some people say the District should not even have full voting rights. It was meant to be a capital, not a state, they reason. Others say the District should be given only one congressman.
I think the answer is statehood.
Statehood would give the citizens of the District equal rights with other citizens of the United States. Voting rights amount to a half-step that looks good only because the people of Washington have no other rights. Statehood for the District would mean equal rights for the District, finally.
With statehood, life in the city would be different. There would no longer be unending attempts to have Congress increase home rule to give city leaders authority over the city budget, the courts and the laws. Instead, the city would have those rights while possibly giving the federal government the right to take control of the city in case of some threat to the federal government.
This would mean an end to District politicians' always being able to hide incompetence behind excuses that usually begin, "We can't do anything because of Congress." I believe the city would be better run and generate more responsible politicians with statehood.
Questions about how statehood would work are secondary, at this point. There would be a constitutional convention and a vote to ratify the constitution that came out of that convention. That is where the fight over how statehood would work should take place. Right now the only question to vote on is one of principle: should the people who live in the District have the same rights as people in the rest of the nation?
Later -- if the statehood vote is yes -- the unique status of Washington as the nation's capital will pose some problems. The biggest problem would stem from the U.S. Constitution, which says that the federal government should have a capital outside of any state in order to be free from the "taint" of any state's political influence. And the Constitution says the federal government should have final legal control over the District to make sure the federal government's functions won't be disrupted by the state government. It is the exact opposite in the 50 states; there the state governments have ultimate authority and the federal government has only the rights given to it by the state.
So how can the District become a state? No problem.
This city's residents would have to write a constitution that gave the federal government more power in cases of emergency than it is given by any other state. That is the burden of being the nation's capital. Federal officials would have some final say over the police department, for example, in case the federal government needed to withstand a riot or some other attack. i
During non-emergency situations, the federal government would be out of local affairs -- with the exception of some representative to the legislature. That representative could protect the federal government's interest in the capital city.
One alternative proposes shrinking the size of the nation's capital so that it would include only the federal triangle, the White House, the Capitol and the monuments. But, in truth, if the federal government were under any kind of assault or threat, it would need some control over parts of the District outside of that slice of land. So, in any conceivable state constitution, the District would have to give the federal government certain absolute powers in case of emergencies.
It is argued, nonetheless, that in order for District residents to control their local government -- even if they let the federal government retain broader control in time of emergency -- a change might be necessary in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution says that the federal government has "power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over [the] District." But as the federal government granted home rule (a mayor and city council whose powers can be overridden by the president or Congress), it could certainly grant the right to a state constitution that has some provision for federal government authority under emergency conditions. That state constitution would give people who live in the District full control of local affairs without violating the U.S. Constitution.
The remaining constitutional obstruction would be the Founding Fathers' apparent desire that the capital be in a place separate from all of the states. That notion is outdated. There is no longer a real fear that people opposed to the federal government in this state or any other would allow mob attacks to shut down the federal government. First of all, the federal government is no longer located in some remote place and subject to being overrun by a large crowd. The District is now one of America's largest cities. Second, this city has proved its ability to protect the federal government by withstanding the fury of riots and anti-war protests during the 1960s.
The argument that the capital should not be in a state because that state might dominate the federal government is obsolete, too. The fast flow of people and news today frees anyone from the worry -- how do you even say it with a straight face? -- that the District might seize control of the federal government or bend federal legislation in its favor because the federal government is located here.
In fact, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers would be stunned to see how rare it is for a national politician -- who may even live in this city -- to take an interest in local life or politics here. But whether District voters should vote yes to statehood doesn't rest on the question of how anyone thinks statehood should work or what problems it might encounter. The question a voter must consider in the booth next Tuesday is whether John Hechinger, who pays taxes, fought for his country and lives within the law, should have the right to a say in the federal and local government.
There is one small problem with voting yes for statehood. Statehood will divert some of the already small amount of money and energy supporting the voting rights amendment. But a no vote on statehood might be interpreted as telling the nation that the District does not want more rights. That would kill the already lame voting rights drive.
Statehood doesn't come suddenly; it took Alaska and Hawaii over 30 years to join the union after their residents had voted for statehood. The statehood drive is simply another iron in the fire, another way to gain representation for John Hechinger and the rest of the people in the District. The push for statehood is also dramatic; it is likely to get attention and make the papers across the nation. It would make the lack of political representation for over 600,000 people a national issue, possibly even increasing money for and interest in the amendment, as well as statehood, here and throughout the nation.
Statehood is a winner for the city and, more important, it is a winner for the federal government because it gets senators and congressmen out of the complications over city laws and the city budget, complications they would rather avoid. Statehood also ends the clear and simple wrong that the federal government commits by not giving political freedom to the people who live in an area that pays more federal taxes than 11 states and has more people than 10 states.
There are some other piddling arguments against statehood: The city is too urban, too Democratic and too black. (Was Iowa too rural, too white and too Republican?) If D.C. becomes a state, New York City will want to become a state too. (Do the people of New York City not have senators and congressmen and complete control of their city government?)
Vote yes on statehood.