In 1911, the House of Representatives passed and sent to President Taft a bill to admit Arizona and New Mexico into the Union. Taft, a staunch believer in the separation of powers, had a problem. The Arizona constitution contained a provision allowing for the recall of state officials, including judges--a provision Taft thought would destroy the independence of the courts.
He vetoed the bill. Arizona then changed its constitution to meet Taft's objection, and the two states were admitted.
Arizona clearly thought it better to modify its constitution and be admitted than to stick by its guns and remain a territory. There may be a lesson in that for the District of Columbia.
The D.C. Statehood Constitutional Convention has come up with a document some of whose provisions have already raised eyebrows among local citizens, will certainly raise the hackles of key members of Congress, and may raise hell with the District's chances of achieving statehood.
But the framers of the proposed constitution insist that it is preferable to stand by their principles than to be convicted of pragmatism. And thus, unless the city council moves to postpone it, the Nov. 2 ballot will include a referendum on a constitution that would certify the right of public employees to strike, that would mandate "affirmative action," that would forbid considering a suspect's dangerousness to the community in setting bail bond and that would guarantee "every person . . . the right to employment, or if unable to work, an income sufficient to meet basic human needs."
That last provision, especially, seems a formula for chaos. Guarantee all residents a job, or income in lieu of a job, and the nation's jobless would be drawn here like ants to honey. Or like flies to a dead duck, which is what the local treasury would quickly become.
It's possible to argue whether statehood is the most appropriate solution to the city's very real problems, including the line-by-line review by Congress of the municipal budget and congressional control over such clearly local matters as location of the city college, the uses to which it may put its convention center and even the locations at which it may sell its lottery tickets.
But that isn't the question for now. The voters have said they want statehood. The question is whether they also want this constitution -- and if they do, whether Congress will accept it.
Charles I. Cassell, president of the convention that drafted the constitution, makes an interesting point. "It is significant to note," he said, "that when the voters elected to become a state, their objective was just that -- not to obtain a constitution which would satisfy everyone in every respect." Some who shared that view thought it followed, rather naturally, that the drafters of the constitution should draft a fairly innocuous basic document, leaving the more controversial provisions to the amendment process. What is the point of giving the statehood's congressional enemies the artillery to shoot it down?
Actually, I often wonder whether some of the backers of the more outlandish proposals care more about their own political posturings than they do about statehood. Or maybe they have concluded that Congress will never approve statehood in any case, which means that they may as well use the convention for their own political purposes. That may not be fair. But it does seem to me that the young man who needs his father's consent to get a driver's license doesn't begin by purchasing a souped-up car.
One more point. It might make sense to tone down the proposed constitution, if that makes congressional approval easier -- even if the District voters themselves agree with every single provision.
Again, the 1911 case may be instructive. Arizona deleted the recall provision in order to win statehood. And as soon it was admitted, it put the objectionable provision right back in.