Democracy in D.C.

Dear Jamie,

       This is my last entry, so I’ll reverse my usual procedure. I’ll be disagreeable first, then conciliatory.
       To begin with, two snipes.
       1) Your claim that D.C.’s lack of congressional representation has cruelly deprived it of “an equal share of federal pork” is bizarre. The city is a monument to federal pork. I would hazard that D.C. receives more government dollars per capita than any place on the planet. The federal government is the largest employer, the largest contractor, the funder of Metro, the maintainer of parks, the builder of highways … what more pork do you want? An Air Force base downtown? (Oh, I forgot, we have one of those, too.)
       2) You’ve missed my point about commuter/Fannie Mae taxes. My beef is this: The reason why D.C. lost all credibility on Capitol Hill is that whenever the city ran into trouble, the only idea that ever occurred to the mayor and the council was another tax. There’s a $300-million deficit? Let’s tax commuters. Medicaid expenditures are too high? Let’s dun nonprofits to make up the shortfall. D.C. is a mess because city officials believed they could spend and tax their way out of any problem. OK, it’s inequitable that Fannie Mae doesn’t pay local taxes. But get over it. As I wrote in my last entry, D.C. has more than enough tax revenue. We don’t need to find any more, even if we “deserve” it.
       Enough of my petulance. Let me seek common ground. We’ve been talking across each other. You have been asking a philosophical question, a question of justice: Given America’s commitment to democracy, what kind of government does Washington deserve? I have been asking a practical question: Given the city’s crisis, what kind of government does Washington need?
       I’ll concede the former question, and you should concede the latter. You’re absolutely right that Washingtonians deserve representative government. All American citizens do. And you’re absolutely right that Congress, the president, and Washingtonians should fundamentally reconceptualize the D.C. government. We should, as you suggest, consider “whether we still want to have an entire capital under congressional control.” Retrocession to Maryland is the idea that appeals most to me: Washingtonians would win representation in the House and Senate and gain the financial support of a state government. Congress could maintain control over critical federal interests–city planning, for example. (Incidentally, there is a good book by Howard University Professor Charles Harris called, I think, Congress and the Governance of the Nation’s Capital, outlining alternative ways to govern national capitals.)
       But we can’t get to your question until we answer mine. Washington cannot afford home rule now. For the past decade, D.C. has had a dysfunctional democratic government. Faced with a democratic government that refused to govern, Congress did the only thing it could. It removed the recalcitrant government, and installed a Control Board that might be able to right its wrongs. Do you think there was any other choice for Congress? I don’t.
       The District should welcome this lacuna of democracy as a great opportunity. Now we can shrink and repair an awful government–a government that would never have been fixed had our elected government remained. Then, andonly then, we can start to build the new, stronger kind of democratic government that we both prize.