Where Does D.C. Go from Here?

November 23, 1993

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore was the only Republican in the House of Representatives to vote for statehood for the District of Columbia. We oppose statehood for D.C., but we sympathize with his reasoning. He says he voted that way as a gesture of support for the dignity of District residents. The way the matter was handled in Congress, he felt, was far from dignified.

Some of the debate was indeed an assault upon the dignity of residents of the nation's capital. Their desire to exercise the bedrock American privilege of voting for members of the Congress who tax them and occasionally send their youth to war is wholly understandable. But the House was right in the end to vote by a margin of 2 1/2 to 1 to deny statehood. Not only are there constitutional problems with making this former part of Maryland a separate state, there are practical reasons. Many cities can't even carry out the functions of a city these days, let alone those of a state. Washington, D.C., is no exception. In many ways it is the least likely city in America to make a go of it as a state.

So poorly has the district's government performed -- in law enforcement, to take the most obvious failure -- that a few members of Congress want to revoke its home rule charter. Texas Republican Tom DeLay called the district's police recruits "border-line retarded," labeled its law enforcement philosophy as "hug-a-thug" and said, "Let's take it back and clean it up." Such utterances are not only an assault on the dignity of the District's residents but of all Americans.

Congress should try to "clean up" Washington not by resuming total control but by (1) giving it true home rule and (2) giving it a fair payment in lieu of taxes for federal property. As it is now, members of Congress, some more antagonistic than Mr. DeLay, have the final word on parts of the municipal budget. Congress also shortchanges the District on in-lieu-of payments. District residents pay over 80 percent of the cost of running their locality -- which includes extraordinary costs associated with the fact that the federal government has removed many square miles of monuments, parks and office buildings from the tax rolls.

Where does D.C. go from here? Statehood is dead for a long time to come. The priority now should be to find other ways to make Washington a prosperous, safe city again. There is every reason for Congress and the District's leaders to try to make the city a model that will set an example for poor and unsafe cities everywhere.

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