Of all the perennial structural issues plaguing American democracy, providing full congressional representation for the District of Columbia’s 700,000 residents must be the most maddening.
It is an anomaly both patent and easy, so easy, to solve. The answer is right there in Douglass County, Md.
To save you some Googling time: Douglass County is not a real place — yet. Rather, it is the new jurisdiction that would be created by returning the residential portions of the District to Maryland, a process known as “retrocession,” conceived by third-generation Washingtonian and policy gadfly David Krucoff.
The genius of Krucoff’s plan is to sidestep all the difficulties, political and constitutional, of creating a new state, or state equivalent, out of the District, and instead to simply allow its people to share the representation Maryland already has.
Retrocession could be accomplished by a combination of federal and state legislation, just as it was in 1847, when the federal government ceded the portion of D.C. south of the Potomac River back to Virginia. No constitutional amendment required.
As a large and influential new population center within Maryland, the people of Douglass County would have a member of Congress to look out for their interests, plus two senators, just as they would if D.C. were a state. Problem solved!
To discuss the matter with Krucoff, as I did over lunch downtown recently, is to experience the full conversational force of a Man With a Plan. Though he operates a real estate business, it is quickly evident that Douglass County is this intense 50-something’s true passion.
“Unlike some other crazy ideas out there,” he said, “this one is so clearly a good idea.” He certainly chose a clever name for his imagined jurisdiction — both an homage to Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist with deep personal roots in the District and Maryland — and a clever play on the city’s existing moniker. “D.C.,” get it?
For the past couple of years, Krucoff has campaigned 25 hours a week for Douglass County, including visits to 38 of the 40 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the District and lobbying various elected officials around the region.
One such pol smiled, looked him in the eye and, according to Krucoff, gently told him: “We’re not going to do this, David.” The dose of realism made no impact that I could discern.
Krucoff prefers to focus on the larger number of officials who, he claims, privately agree with him but don’t dare say so publicly. They are, in his phrase, “closeted retrocessionists.” Perhaps someday, if statehood keeps failing, they will come out.
It’s revealing that local politicians would resist Krucoff’s proposal (and others like it), even though it accomplishes the main ostensible purpose of the D.C. statehood and voting rights movements.
Obviously, many who advocate full representation for the District see it as a way to increase the number of senators and representatives; they have the interests of politicians as well as voters in mind.
The central objection to retrocession is that it fails to give voice to the District’s unique culture and interests. There’s something to that, but Douglass County’s 700,000 people would be dominant within a new Maryland congressional district and have a huge influence over the election of Maryland’s U.S. senators — not to mention having a large delegation in the state legislature.
Crucially, a Douglass County state’s attorney would replace the U.S. attorney in matters of criminal law, restoring local autonomy in that area as well.
As Douglass County regained control of prosecutors and courts, it could meanwhile shed multiple layers of bureaucracy — including the Department of Motor Vehicles, Metro and Medicaid — that the District currently maintains because it would no longer be individually responsible for those statelike functions. Maryland would take over.
Maryland has traditionally opposed retrocession for precisely that reason, but cost concerns are decreasingly credible given the District’s economic boom. Any burden of administering the needs of the District’s population, including its poor, could be offset by the huge increase to Maryland’s tax base from incorporating wealthy precincts such as Ward 3.
The federal government ought to be willing to grease retrocession by supplying transitional aid, possibly by reprogramming annual grants to the District.
Krucoff’s plan includes a neat diagram tracing the small, residual “federal city” — basically, the Mall, monuments, Capitol and White House — that would remain as “the Seat of the Government of the United States” called for in Article I of the Constitution.
This leads to the only truly serious flaw I could find in Krucoff’s otherwise nifty plan: That rump federal District would still have three votes in the electoral college, per the 23rd Amendment.
You’d have to repeal that provision, lest those electors fall under the control of the little area’s last inhabitant: the president. “That’s the only person who could game the system,” Krucoff concedes.