Jaffe Report: Is There a Path to D.C. Local Control That Doesn't Require Statehood?

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

Hurrah for the true believers in D.C. statehood, led by Eleanor Holmes Norton. Our non-voting delegate to Congress is set to introduce on Wednesday her annual bill to create the state of New Columbia.

City leaders are primed to petition Congress.

I'm afraid statehood has as much chance of success as President Trump snaring the Sierra Club lifetime achievement award. 

No doubt the relationship between Congress and the District has become unconstitutional over time. It cries out for reconsideration, but not necessarily by creating the state of New Columbia. The D.C. political doctrine of statehood uber alles is folly. But we do have ways and means to achieve self-government. Bear with me. 

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the rest of the Founding Fathers were a wise, brave, well-intentioned crew. They crafted a document that has stood up well these 240 years, establishing my favorite freedom: freedom of speech. Despite the proclivities of our current president and assorted authoritarian voices, I have faith the Constitution will outlast them all.

The framers did, however, make mistakes. Among their worst blunders was creating the federal enclave of Washington, D.C., and placing it under congressional control.

In 1787, walling off a federal district made sense. Unpaid and irate revolutionary soldiers had chased the Continental Congress from Philadelphia in 1783. The framers were homeless. As part of a political deal in 1790, George Washington placed the capital city up-river from his plantation at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Jefferson, Madison, Ben Franklin and the rest intended to create a capital city separate and sacrosanct from the states, which were already in conflict over slavery. The cobbled-together capital would house the three branches of government – period.

Right from the start the new Washington District was different from other world capitals, such as Rome, Paris or London. They were historic crossroads by rivers that had gained their stature and populations over centuries. The U.S. capital, plunked on a swamp, had farms north of Florida Avenue, forests around Spring Valley, more deer than people in Rock Creek.

How could Alexander Hamilton and George Washington have known that a thriving urban core would grow around the White House and U.S. Capitol? But here we are, a diverse and growing city of 670,000 people, not all of whom are connected to the federal government.

Congressional control of the District is vestigial. If the Founding Fathers created the District to hold it harmless from transitory political trends, the current system is unconstitutional, pure and simple. It allows all sorts of mischief from small-minded, politically-driven representatives from other states. Their meddling is precisely the kind of political nonsense the Founding Fathers hoped to forestall. At the moment, Utah’s Jason Chaffetz is merely the latest in a line of congressmen sullying the spirit of the Constitution.

The District supports itself with locally raised taxes, sends residents off to war, contributes more to the federal treasury than many states. Yet the Home Rule Act of 1974 grants limited self-government and keeps us under Congress' thumb?

Eleanor Holmes Norton, our steadfast and able delegate to the House, has tried for years to get full voting rights on the House floor. No dice. D.C. residents have voted to control their own budget, without congressional review. Congress has balked. District residents approved a referendum to make D.C. a state. Fat chance.

Now Chaffetz wants to overturn our law allowing physicians to prescribe medical aid in dying. And Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland has it out for D.C.’s marijuana legalization law. And Florida Senator Marco Rubio thinks he has to wipe away D.C.’s ability to regulate gun ownership.

What to do?

Every D.C. politician must subscribe to the myth that the District will become the 51st state with two senators and a congressional representative, all of whom would be Democrats. It would require congressional approval and amending the Constitution. Not gonna happen.

If it didn’t work in 1993, when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it’s not likely to get passed when Republicans have a scintilla of power, let alone the trifecta they enjoy now.

There’s a more direct route to freeing D.C. from Congress, without changing the Constitution:

  • Draw a boundary around the current federal enclave -- encompassing the Supreme Court, the Capitol, the National Mall, down Pennsylvania Avenue past the federal agencies down to the White House. Keep that more diminutive and well-defined federal district under congressional control.

  • Call the city around the District New Washington and allow it to tax and spend and govern itself, as an independent entity. It would be a new jurisdiction, neither city nor state. It would function under the federal government but with full local control, including the entire legal system, from prosecution to courts. 

  • Shrink congressional authority to matters of national security, solvency and insurrection.

That would honor the intent of the Founding Fathers, but it would allow the residents of New Washington to control their own destiny.

Why not take the legislative path to create this new city?

“I respectfully reject that premise,” says Bo Shuff, an advocate with DC Vote, which lobbies for statehood. “Saying statehood is not going to happen is the conventional wisdom. It doesn’t make it accurate.”

Shuff compared the statehood campaign to the struggle for gay rights. “It’s a social change issue that has to be worked and continue to be worked.”

Swell, but while it’s being “worked,” congressmen with questionable intent are working over our independence. Eleanor Norton, who’s on the front lines, is less doctrinaire.

“I cannot support this proposal,” she responded by email, “but I won’t criticize it because we need to encourage much more of this type of creative thinking if we are to move the ball forward.”

Says Rep. Jamin Raskin, newly-elected representative from Montgomery County and beyond: “It’s great to advance proposals about the continuing domination of the local population by Congress.”

The Founding Fathers -- who believed in basic justice, democracy and self-government -- would agree: time to be creative, move past statehood and free D.C., by any means necessary.

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