return to the top of the page DIMINISH THE CURRENT DISTRICT'S ROLES
o Return State/Federal Functions to the Federal Government

o Make the District a Territory or Colony of the Federal Government

o Make over all/some of the District as a National Capital District Park

Possibly the least that can be done to improve the District is to relegate it to the status of an urban county--like Baltimore City--but without a state affiliation. It would become more of a financial ward of the Congress, as a substitute for its missing parent state, as well as its incomplete status within its MSA. Most current institutions would remain--and many related inefficiencies. Future development would remain reliant on Congressional committees.

In this alternative, efforts would clearly be needed to integrate the District into its burgeoning MSA to achieve better "burden sharing" of both the costs and benefits of being part of the Nation's Capital area. There are incontrovertible reductions in the District's share of total Greater Washington MSA (GWMSA) strength, discussed elsewhere under Regional Macro-economic Trends

In this modest reincarnation, the DC is superficially comparable to Baltimore City (BC) in the Baltimore MSA. Demographics are similar though BC has a somewhat higher minority share. BC comprises 32% of its MSA population, while DC is only 21%. Crime rates are also similar, though BC's rates of both violent and property crimes slightly exceed DC's. BC employs 4.9 policemen per thousand residents compared to DC's 9.0. Bureau of the Census data indicate per capita income in DC is over 60% higher than in BC ($20K v 12K). Inner city white income is almost twice as high ($31K v $17K), and black income is 30% higher ($12K v $9K). City based revenues and expenditures for DC are over 3 times as high as those of BC ($7800 v $2500 per capita).

Baltimore City, however, is a thoroughly dependent county benefitting from the wealth of its surrounding jurisdictions, while DC is trying to "go it alone". For example, BC pays only 32% of its public school costs whereas DC pays 97%. The 36% larger student population in BC attends three fewer schools (178 v 181) with much greater student density (620 vs 450 students/school). Moreover, BC's cost per student of $4640 is far closer to the national average of $4940 for large school districts than the DC's $7435. (See Current Issues: Public Education )

Unlike typical, more or less unified metropolitan areas, in which the relatively disadvantaged inner city comprises on average less than 25% of the MSA population, the division within the DC is closer to 50% relatively disadvantaged. This results in one well-off DC household rather than, say, three, contributing (figuratively) to the needs of one less fortunate household. Recent nationwide trends in declining welfare rolls are not matched in the District. In fact, DC has sought to stave off--or at least delay--current legislative initiatives to limit welfare largesse. The result is an understandable urge of the "haves" to abandon the "have nots" -or at least become part of a larger cohort of (even richer) suburbanites.

This is clearly not just a problem in "white flight". Relatively affluent blacks have been leaving the District at a faster rate, and dissociating themselves from their less fortunate brethren The draining of the inner city has many complex causes, some qualitative and some quantitative. Negative urban factors tend to push residents out while positive suburban factors attract them: re-balancing them is critical.

In addition to diminishing the DC's roles to those of a county ward of the Congress, there are other options of similar genre. One is to acknowledge the district's lack of voting rights and let it become a "territory": essentially a US colony which is managed by the Congress and pays no federal income taxes. In fact, the size of the disparity between the total taxes now levied on the district and those of neighboring jurisdictions is about $4000 per capita, whereas federal taxes amount, on average nationally, to some $4600 per capita. While this may seem to be an attractive expedient in trying to stem the migration out of the district, it does nothing to correct the profligacy of the DC, nor does it portend improvements in the quality of life. In fact, it is likely to be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the current DC government.

It seems ludicrous to foreswear federal taxes so that DC's richest citizens can continue to underwrite its poorest citizens through flagrantly inefficient--if not downright dishonest--city government. It would ultimately lead to the most polarized city in the US with the rich bidding up land values to obtain tax shelters and the poor contriving to receive more handouts. How could Americans possibly justify excusing from taxes its own Congress, its federal workers, a breed of wealthy Americans bent on avoiding their country's obligations and responsibilities, and the world's largest concentration of lobbyists paid to influence government officials toward special interests? The rich would thereby encourage the perpetuation of an incompetent local government to continue their own tax shelters. Wouldn't it be better to require the area's citizens to continue to fulfill their federal responsibilities (including voting) while obliging the Congress to spread the costs of its own actions--and inactions--regarding the District?


o Encourage Incorporated Townships (Urban Villages) within District

o Allow Privatized Services within Incorporated Townships

o Allow Affiliated Services from Neighboring Counties (schools, recycling, etc.)

o Realign Wards to Restore Political Representation

Residents could alleviate many local grievances and nagging problems by forming incorporated towns and villages within the DC. For many, aside from high taxes, quality of life is limited by lack of control of local ordinances, except through acquiescence of a generally uninterested Mayor and City Council. Georgetown and Alexandria were originally such separate jurisdictions, but the current ward system provides for no local governance. These new local jurisdictions could privatize some of the services the DC fails to provide such as: reliable trash collection; recycling; prompt snow removal; leaf removal; and so forth. For instance, the annual costs of once-a-week garbage collection by a private contractor in an urban setting probably need not exceed $150 per household. More serious issues like local protection services, independent emergency ambulance services, and even separate schools could be considered. Some of these alternatives already exist for those willing to pay the premium. The DC government is likely to resist compensatory reductions in taxes, but the concept should be tested.

Another possibility, however remote, would be to negotiate to pay to receive the services of neighboring counties. Montgomery County's schools, for instance, already have many tuition-paying students who have elected not to use the DC system. Perhaps Montgomery County would accept a contract to operate the public schools in Ward 3. Presumably, for a fee, trash collection and emergency services could also be arranged. Again, the odds of DC providing "refunds" for services no longer performed seem remote.

Yet another alternative might be some realignment in the ward boundaries to increase the political clout of the currently disenfranchised wealthy residents of Wards 2 and 3. Though there might be little if any change in the popular vote for mayor, it could increase the voice of the "suburban civic mind set". For instance, a configuration of two "superwards", one involving Wards 1-4, and the other Wards 5-8, could possibly provide a very significant change in City Council emphasis. None of these changes are likely to bring sufficient political strength to seriously reform DC government excesses. Consequently, the changes in DC government costs would not be significant.

return to the top of the page CHANGE THE DISTRICT'S BOUNDARIES

o Bring Arlington County (and others) within DC

o Allow Sub entities (Wards or Townships) to Secede

o Diminish jurisdictional powers below Metro Area level

More fundamental changes would require either expanding or shrinking the district's borders. As discussed later, bringing Arlington County, Alexandria City, and either Silver Spring or Bethesda within the DC envelope would restore a socioeconomic balance more representative of the national average. This might provide enough clout at the ballot box to significantly change the workings of the DC government, and eventually provide a local government more like those elsewhere in the GWMSA.

There has been some interest in the better off parts of the city to secede to Montgomery County in the hopes of getting services better fitted to their needs. Such fragmentation of the District might serve the purposes of those who "escape", but would seem to seal the fate of those who stay behind. The remainder would constitute an even poorer, less professional, inner city remnant, despairing within sight of the nation's capitol, and virtually totally dependent on Congressional handouts: a sort of super homeless shelter. Abandonment does not seem, in the cool light of day, to be an American solution to our uniquely American problems.

Alternatively, there remains some whimsical interest in ceding the poorest parts of the city East of the Anacostia (Wards 7, 8 and a part of 6-- sometimes referred to as "Anacostia County") to Maryland's Prince George's County. There is somewhat better rationale for this, although it may not be a realistic political option. The argument is that DC currently harbors way more than its share of the metro area's poor, and is getting no assistance from the suburbs in providing for them. Why not, then, cede those poorer, geographically-contiguous sections to Maryland and oblige that state to support them with its much larger tax base? In this case the residual would be more capable of taking care of its smaller health and welfare burden.

return to the top of the page A MINIMAL NATIONAL CAPITAL DISTRICT

There have been many different proposals for what a minimal-sized National Capital District (NCD) might encompass. A recent NARPAC, Inc. study proposed an NCD bounded by K Street and Massachusetts Avenue to the north; 3rd Street on the east (with the Washington Navy Yard as its southeast anchor); the Anacostia River on the south; and the western boundaries of the Pentagon (as southwest anchor), Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Theodore Roosevelt Island (as the northwest anchor), and the mouth of Rock Creek Park. Substantial area south of Rte 395 is available to expand the originally visualized "federal triangle" and other relevant tax-free uses (such as embassy residences and non-profit institutions).

In the attached graphic , this NARPAC, Inc. example is compared to an 1861 map of the Territory of Columbia, including the federal city of Washington, with its defenses at the time of the Civil War. The insert shows an 1881 Army Corps of Engineer's map showing the extent of paved streets within the federal city. These same boundaries are similar to those envisioned in the 1970's as a National Capital Service Area. Many other versions have been proposed, with very little difference between them.


o Define a Minimal Federally-funded National Capital District

o Make the rest of DC a separate county within Maryland

o Divide up the rest of DC between Montgomery and Prince George's Counties

o Amalgamate the Tax Base and Key Services throughout Metro Area

o Make the District Itself a Higher Jurisdiction--a Separate State

Curing the district's root problems may well require choices that place all but a minimal Congressionally-controlled National Capital District under the control of some intermediate higher governing jurisdiction--either the State of Maryland, or some joint "receivership" shared by Maryland and Virginia. The simplest, but least effective would be to make the DC a separate county of Maryland (not just a voting district). In this case, most of the "county's" bad habits in local governance would persist. On the other hand, improvement might be felt in some areas (like schools, health, and corrections) where the professional experience of a reputable state government could be brought to bear. Moreover, the burdens would be spread across a population base rapidly approaching ten times as large. However, without some strong inducements, the notion of taking on "another Baltimore City" cannot resonate well with Maryland voters.

Reunion with Maryland

The major proponents for this solution remain the highly motivated and rational Committee for the Capital City. However, the suit to force Congress to grant DC residents equal rights (in representation) filed on September 14th, 1998, has stimulated an interesting renewed call from the University of Maryland's Roger Lewis for retrocession (or better, reunion?) to Maryland. Quoting directly from his recent article (9/19/98) in the Washington Post entitled: "A Marriage Between DC and Maryland Could Be the Start of a Beautiful Relationship":

Remarrying the District and Maryland probably would be a win-win situation economically for both the city and the state. Despite obvious and persistent problems related to delivery of municipal services, schools, poverty and crime, the nation's capital is fundamentally a healthy, prosperous city.

Compared with most cities, including Baltimore, Washington has a sizable middle-class and upper-middle-class population, a large and stable base of government and private-sector employment and a substantial income and tax base. Negative publicity and mistaken impressions cannot alter the fact that Washington is a very livable place and could become even more so were it able to function as a normal municipality.

The impediments to retrocession are primarily political, a reflection of natural loyalties, pride and self-interest, coupled with skepticism and mistrust.

Statehood for the District, the highest level of jurisdictional sovereignty under the federal system, continues to be an aspiration of many Washingtonians. They would argue that becoming a city in Maryland not only falls far short of statehood, but also diminishes the historical status and autonomy of Washington as the federal capital.

Despite potentially favorable economic consequences of retrocession, many Marylanders are likely to assume that acquiring the city of Washington would be a financial burden. Residents of Baltimore might worry about admitting to the state a second large metropolis competing with Baltimore for state resources and public attention. Maryland Republicans certainly would balk at adding to the state several hundred thousand liberal-leaning urban voters, most of whom are Democrats. And even Maryland Democrats might be nervous about inevitable shifts in the geopolitical landscape that would accompany the acquisition of Washington.

Successfully dealing with these political obstacles requires that all concerned governments -- federal, state and city -- first ensure that citizens understand fully the costs and benefits of retrocession. Unless consequences are known and perceived to be favorable, no legislative body would vote for such a momentous change in the status quo.

Especially critical would be spelling out convincingly the economic implications, since no one would support retrocession unless the financial prospects are positive. To be persuasive, economic evaluations would have to be carried out objectively by disinterested analysts rather than by agencies and officials of the affected governments. Likewise, both Washingtonians and Marylanders would have to be persuaded that the merger really would elevate the status of both the city and the state.

The other key to selling skeptical people on the idea of retrocession would be a credible implementation plan. Retrocession could not occur overnight. It would require a period of transition and adaptation, a kind of marriage engagement period lasting several years. The state of Maryland and the city of Washington would have to work hard to get to know each other. During such a transition period, all the misgivings about living together, all the governmental kinks and bugs, would be revealed and resolved.

Subdivision between Maryland and Virginia

A cleaner solution would be simply to liquidate the DC, pay off its debts, merge its two major halves with Montgomery and PG counties, and let these two professional and growing jurisdictions save the district from itself. This may well be the best way to minimize the total costs to all Americans and restore quality of life and pride to the nation's capital area--although it does not, per se, solve the problem of inner city decay.

In this more extreme case, Montgomery County assimilates Wards 1 through 4, and Prince George's takes Wards 4 through 8. The remaining 2x5-mile area, comprising a "Washington National Capital District (NCD)", would include most of Ward 2, less Georgetown. Less than one-third of Ward 2's acreage is taxable, mostly in Georgetown. This approach asserts that Maryland can manage and complement urban county needs better than the federal government--particularly the legislative branch. This seems compatible with the new Republican welfare approach.

The existing political ward system would be replaced by separate "townships" within their newly adopted counties, whose extended common border would be the B&O railroad tracks leading to Union Station as the NCD's northeast anchor (see prior section National Capital District ).Although our Constitution limits DC's maximum size to a 10-mile square, nothing prohibits making it smaller (particularly if fears of terrorism are going to make it figuratively a new "walled city").

Under this option, municipal institutions would assume the character of their townships and the hierarchical structure of their counties and the State of Maryland. The net cost to these jurisdictions is thereby considerably less than that assumed by the Congress in Option A. There would be no mayor's office, no council, no school board, and no police or fire chief. Economy of scale works as well among public institutions as it does for private businesses, particularly as an antidote to a dwindling economic base.

Talk of returning DC to Maryland invariably raises the question of whether Maryland voters would look favorably upon such a move. Virginians agreed to assimilate Alexandria and Arlington County in 1846 after those residents voted to secede from DC, (after Alexandria had gone bankrupt trying to pay their share of the canal extension below Georgetown). Today, a national referendum on restoring the nation's capital might be more appropriate. Per capita income of DC residents is higher than the state wide average of Maryland or Virginia. These statistics may be biased by relatively high welfare payments to DC residents, but these federal payments do not derive from state resources. The GWMSA counties of Maryland and Virginia are well above their state wide averages, but the median household income for Montgomery and Prince George's "supercounties" would drop about 10% (See Comparing Composite Counties ).

Another seldom mentioned question is whether the composition of the Nation's Capital is--or should be--more representative of the country at large. This is by no means simply a question of racial or wealth distribution, although the DC has by far the largest "minority majority" of any jurisdiction attempting to perform state governmental functions. In fact, if DC were to take back Arlington County and Alexandria City--and perhaps 10% of Montgomery County--it would change the demographic balancecloser to a representative US majority.

But "representativeness" surely is primarily a question of civic outlook, and revolves around how the citizenry visualizes its government as leader and provider--and employer, for that matter. These views reflect such socioeconomic intangibles as personal expectations, living conditions, and the realities of "circumstances". They are related to where and how people live, work, and think about themselves and their community. The US lifestyle, class structure, and mind set has become primarily (almost 70%) affluent suburban, with nominally 20% of the less fortunate in the inner cities, and the remaining 5-10% opting for rural and farming life. The neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia do not depart greatly from the selected state (SS) norm. On the other hand, DC is at least 70% urban and less than 30% suburban. The difference cannot help but show in virtually all aspects of local government politics and priorities. See Differing Civic Outlooks

There are more expedient political concerns with changing jurisdictional boundaries. Over 90% of DC residents are Democrats--and there are enough of them to swing the balance from Republican to Democratic in Maryland- but not in Virginia. Of course, party affiliations could well change under different jurisdictions. DC's real governance problems must surpass normal party politics and be settled in a non-partisan fashion. Demagogic cries of "racism" and "gerrymandering" will only perpetuate our national embarrassment.

The willingness of Maryland to accept responsibility for most of the DC can also be influenced by the alternatives presented. Relative to the status quo, DC may not seem like a particularly desirable "acquisition". However, if the alternatives oblige both Maryland and Virginia to underwrite a greater share of the costs of operating the inner city, then perhaps they would prefer to do it more efficiently on their own, rather than less efficiently under current institutional practices--and ad hoc Congressional mandates. Why accept an in-place local government arguably less efficient than their own?

A more radical and revolutionary approach would be to work towards a new kind of metropolitan area jurisdiction which amalgamates more of the region's essential services as is now done elsewhere for urban transportation and port/airport authorities. Persistent problems of inner city degradation surrounded by suburban aggrandizement must eventually be addressed throughout the US. The GWMSA could serve as a national model for a new approach: most MSAs have clearly outgrown their local governments.

The need to amalgamate overlapping services, revenue collection, and expenditures, while providing a level playing field in quality of services seems obvious. The national migrations of the poor into, and the rich out of, urban areas clearly cannot go on indefinitely. Somehow the governing jurisdiction must remain significantly larger than any of its subtended idiosyncratic neighborhoods. Sub-jurisdictions (such as townships) can preserve various cultural diversities, but the basic services, from schools to security, should reflect regional or national norms to be effective. 200-year-old jurisdictional boundaries may well be simply unequal to contemporary socioeconomic responsibilities.

return to the top of the pageMAKE THE DISTRICT A SEPARATE STATE
Of all the possible options, the notion of statehood for the District seems the most fanciful. The DC Government has spent millions promoting statehood, and the DC Statehood Party claims 4200 registered voters (1.4% of the DC total). In fact, there are six US states with less than a million in population, but there the similarities end. These states are characterized by very low inner city population shares (17% vs 100% for DC), a low minorities share, half the poverty and crime rate, two-thirds the hospital and per-student school costs, three-quarters of the welfare recipients (each receiving 20% less), and one-third as many police.

From a financial standpoint, statehood cannot help the District's shortage of revenue sources, since the "State of Columbia" would have no more taxpayers or taxable property than DC does now. In fact, all the current plans to rescue the District include taking away some or all of those unaffordable state functions. And with those plans go any practical expectations for statehood.

On the other hand, there is a real need to eliminate the "disenfranchisement" of DC residents. The nation's capital surely cannot be fully representative of America's future hopes if it cannot vote at all political levels. It is probably safe to say that almost all of DC's current problems that contribute to making it a national disgrace are the result of local government inadequacies, and the lack of checks and balances between local and (non-existent) state levels. And no one could claim that DC's current non-voting Congresswoman is without influence.

The fact remains that Congress has been responsible--and not altogether unintentionally--for some of the District's problems, although it is doubtful that one or two voting representatives would have eliminated them. A better solution may be to get Congress "out of the loop" of urban management. This is being proposed under President's Clinton's new initiative to eliminate the annual federal payment. Unfortunately, for other reasons, the loss of this payment appears quite inappropriate. A more realistic solution might be to make that payment (whatever is left of it) an "entitlement" rather than an annual appropriation.

Nonetheless, DC residents should in fact have full representation in the Congress and the unresolved question is how to achieve that. Assimilation of the District back into the State of Maryland (or any other willing state, for that matter) provides an automatic solution. DC's population is almost exactly equivalent to one Congressional district. More creative solutions are needed if the District is to maintain full autonomy. Awarding DC residents voting rights in a neighboring state (of their choice?) might provide one solution since both Maryland and Virginia have--or must develop--an abiding interest in the continued success of the GWMSA. More creativity needs to be applied to this long-range problem.


Surprisingly little discussion is taking place on major changes in DC's future. What little exists is shown in the attached daily headlines summary.

This page was updated on Aug 5, 1999



© copyright 2007 NARPAC, Inc. All rights reserved