WASHINGTON -- This summer, after years of democratic revolutions around the world, two great cities were stripped of popular sovereignty. One of them, the capital of this Republic, deserved to be.
Hong Kong's self-government became a casualty because of a treaty signed a century ago and a Communist revolution.
The fate of democracy in the District of Columbia was less necessary and hence is, in a sense, more troubling.
Congress' repeal of the District's home rule has been characterized antiseptically as a "revitalization" plan to "restructure the relationship" between the District and Congress, which is constitutionally empowered to "exercise exclusive legislation" over "the seat of the government."
Congress, which gave home rule, has withdrawn it because the District has become a national embarrassment.
Since 1970 the District has lost a quarter of its population -- this has been black and white flight -- including more people already in the 1990s than in all the 1980s.
The municipal payroll has swollen grotesquely: The mayor's office employs twice as many people as New York's mayor's office, four times as many as Boston's.
Provision of the elementary municipal services -- education, sanitation, streets, public safety (9 percent of District corrections inmates have tested positive for drugs) -- is collapsing. So power has been transferred from the mayor and city council to a control board.
Yes, governing the District is complex, given the overlapping of authorities and the fact that the federal government owns 40 percent of the land.
But the District gets more from the federal presence than it gives to the federal government. That presence, and the tourism and business travel it generates, is a counter-cyclical engine, permanently in place.
Withdrawal of popular sovereignty is condign punishment for those District voters who have elected many charlatans and demagogues, including Mayor Marion Barry for a fourth time, after prison.
Voters have chosen to be corrupted by the culture of pandemic government, the debasement of living larcenously off wealth created by others.
Let us not mince words -- the words of John Stuart Mill. A passionate friend of freedom, he nevertheless argued in his book "Representative Government" that, although such government is desirable, "a people may be unwilling or unable to fulfill its conditions."
Mill said a people may be "more or less unfit for liberty," and "may be unable to practice the forbearance which it demands" if "from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it."
Mill said that "however little blame may be due to those in whom these mental habits have grown up, and however the habits may be ultimately conquerable by better government," a "civilized government, to be really advantageous to them, will require to be in a considerable degree despotic."
Despotism hardly describes the federal largess (for example, the federal government is assuming almost $5 billion in pension liabilities) that has bought out the power of a decadent political class.
However, there are few scurrilities to which Mayor Barry and his accomplices will not stoop, so the rescue of the District from itself will be tarred as a racist abuse.
bTC And Mr. Barry probably will win a fifth term by portraying his voters as -- what else? -- victims, not of their own folly and cupidity, but of Congress.
There are, of course, real victims -- the uneducated children and other vulnerable persons denied competent government.
Surely we have heard the last of the idea of statehood, complete with two U.S. senators, for the District. Washington is only the nation's 20th largest city, ranking just below El Paso.
Members of the House represent people. Senators represent states, which are supposed to be geographic regions containing diverse interests.
As a state, the District would be the only state with no rural, agricultural interests, no mining or other extraction industries, no fishing, almost no manufacturing. Just lots of government.
The Democratic Party favors statehood because the party is, as parties are, greedy for power. (It would almost automatically get two more senators, forever.)
And Democrats find nothing objectionable in a polity with an absurdly high ratio of government to everything else.
In 1978, 15 Republican senators, including Dole, Goldwater and Thurmond, voted for statehood.
This grovel for black votes elsewhere was as effective as it deserved to be.
There is disgrace all around concerning the debacle of democracy in Washington, seat of the government that Americans founded in order to (in Jefferson's words) make to the entire world "a communication of grandeur and freedom."
George F. Will writes a syndicated column.
Pub Date: 8/14/97