The Federal Takeover of Maryland

January 13, 1995|By KEVIN PHILLIPS

BETHESDA — Bethesda. -- For most of our 50 states public anger at the over-expansion of Washington is abstract and long-distance -- something to grouse about at tax time or in a November vote for Congress, but not much of a local sore point.

That's no longer true for the states on both sides of the Potomac -- in Virginia, but even more emphatically in Maryland, where the overspill of Washington's hundreds of thousands of lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats, foreign residents, diplomats and consultants has produced two new developments: 1) the first governor of Maryland from the Washington suburbs, elected over the opposition of a majority of voters elsewhere in the state; and 2) the imminent coming-together of Baltimore and Washington in a new enlarged metropolitan area with a Potomac rather than Chesapeake tilt.

As Maryland Washingtonizes, less attention will be paid to the interests of Baltimore steel workers, Garrett County Amish or residents of towns like St. Mary's where the state grew up three centuries ago. Washingtonians think we had only one Civil War, fought principally along the 19th-century Potomac, from Harper's Ferry to Fredericksburg. But Maryland knows that another civil war -- a small part of England's 17th-century civil war -- was fought 200 years earlier on Kent Island and Providence (later Annapolis).

All right. This is trivia. But the capital city that is submerging Maryland isn't London, Paris, Rome or some other greater foreign megalopolis at the center of national history, tradition and LTC culture. We are talking about Washington, D.C., the place Mr. and Ms. American Voter cursed as they went to the polls in November, the seat of government that grew from an empty swamp in 1800 to a metropolitan area that now boasts seven of the nation's 20 highest per-capita income counties and has made ''inside the beltway'' a nationwide term for smug arrogance.

Compared with Washington, the federal districts of other major nations -- Canada's Ottawa, Australia's Canberra, Brazil's Brasilia -- are small potatoes. People don't like them, to be sure. (Canadians say that moving their capital from Ottawa to mid-continental Winnipeg would have the side benefit of leaving thousands of bureaucrats and journalists unemployed.) On the other hand, nobody's worried about Ottawa sprawl eating up Ontario or Canberra suburbs gaining political control of New South Wales.

Washington, however, is a different breed of urban center. It's the relentlessly expanding governmental ghetto of the world's leading power. The history of prior centers like Alexandria, Rome, 17th-century Madrid and Holland's The Hague in the 18th century is not reassuring. These capitals sucked in people and wealth even as the rest of the nation passed its zenith and important portions of its economy started to thin.

For citizens in Kansas, New Hampshire and Oregon, the debate over Washington and whether it can be allowed to keep growing is important. The capital's hordes of lobbyists and lawyers clog the machinery of national governance, the 20,000 staffers who work for Congress are more than six times the staff of any other national legislature. In many ways, the capital city is too swollen to function, as Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers worried might one day be the case.

But for Maryland, the swollen capital has a second, more immediate importance. It may be on the verge of dominating Maryland politics -- and conceivably, if growth continues, even state economic and cultural life. Montgomery County in the Washington suburbs, a minor political jurisdiction in the 1920s when Baltimore's H.L. Mencken was scoffing at the federal capital, is now the most populous in the state. The Washingtonization of Maryland is proceeding apace.

No mention was made of this process in the Republican Party's (( much-touted ''Contract With America,'' but in theory the GOP stands for change, proposing shrinkage in the congressional staff, devolution of power to states and localities and cuts in the federal executive branch (or even moving the Agriculture Department to Des Moines or Interior to Denver). Optimists can hypothesize a possible science-fiction movie analogy; as the ray guns zap the geopolitical monster, will his tentacles retreat and give up their hold on Annapolis, Columbia and the south side of Frederick?

Probably not, but if there is any state where the debate over Washington and its merits and growth ought to be front and center, it's Maryland. In a September Time-CNN poll, 86 percent of Americans said that George Washington would be disappointed in the city that bears his name.

Would Marylanders also say that about George Calvert, Lord you-know-what?

Kevin Phillips edits the American Political Report. His new book is ''Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics.''

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