The future of the District of Columbia should be a serious issue for all America citizens who take pride in their country. An economically practical, long-range solution is needed that assures that our nation's capital reflects our overall national goals and objectives for the future. Such a solution may be applicable to other US metropolitan areas in which increasing demographic inequities threaten future social stability. It is important to consider the full range of domains for change, and the alternatives within them. The best solution may well involve elements of several different approaches:


return to the top of the page THE GEOGRAPHIC DOMAIN

The current borders can be maintained or changed by a) enlarging or reducing the size of the District (e.g., by bringing Arlington County back into the DC, or ceding Ward 3 to Montgomery Country), or by b) dissolving DC altogether. There is a separate choice of retaining the components of the "federal city" (buildings, parks, etc.) with the remainder of the old or new jurisdiction, or of separating them out under federal control as, say, a National Capital District Park. The Constitution requires some federal enclave. It seems highly desirable as an independent symbol of our nation's strength and success, but not necessarily encumbered by the all too-common problems of inner cities. We are not obliged to flaunt our urban failures on the national seal or the American flag.

By comparison, the US National Park Service already maintains 368 different areas in 49 states and six US districts and territories, with over 80 million acres. It employs about 17,000 people and uses an annual budget of $1.1 billion. Altogether, DC is less than 40,000 acres, although its government consumes about $5 billion annually, and employs more than 40,000 employees. Only a fraction of that is needed for a national monument.

Decisions on retaining or abolishing the current geographic boundaries of the DC are fundamental to the question of whether to preserve or eliminate several current DC institutions--such as the public education system; the police, court, and correctional systems; and various social services. Correcting DC's politically acceptable bad habits will be virtually impossible so long as its current institutions persist.

Furthermore, geographic changes in jurisdictional boundaries have long served the purposes of changing the overall demographic or political composition. It is not inconceivable that some sort of redistricting could be adopted as a means of changing the political focus to better reflect, for example, national norms in political outlook.

Of particular interest in this regard is a recent book by David Rusk entitled "Cities without Suburbs". The author makes a compelling case that those states that have allowed their cities to expand--to keep embracing their suburbs--and cities that have done so are far better off economically and demographically than those that have allowed their earlier boundaries to remain fixed and, in fact, grow into cages that keep some people in, others out.

return to the top of the page THE JURISDICTIONAL DOMAIN
A fundamental decision must be made as to the ultimate level of political control to be exercised by whatever distinct entity remains. Should the DC become New Columbia, the 51st state? a US territory (like Guam) reporting to the Congress? a separate Columbia County? -- as part of Maryland? the inner city of the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area (it could still be a county in this role--like Baltimore City)? or is it a very small metropolitan area (like Charleston SC, or Syracuse NY) in which Ward 3 and Georgetown play the suburbs to some inner city comprised of Wards 1, 2, and 4-8?

Most counties benefit from subdividing into townships for the purposes of local political inputs, preferred ordinances, and so forth. In the latest jargon of the urbanologists, professionals are looking at turning (or really returning) to the use of "Urban Villages" in which to keep ethnic or social individuality. All the world's Chinatowns are essentially urban villages, maintaining their unique culture, but living within the dictates of the larger community.

The ward system used in the DC does not provide the same perceptions or realities of local autonomy as exists, for example, in Bethesda or Silver Spring in Montgomery County, Maryland. The combined population of those two towns closely approaches that of Wards 2 and 3 together. Parts of DC might well alleviate their local frustrations with the DC government by incorporating.

Decisions on the jurisdictional level are critical to the level of service provided, to the revenue (tax) structure, and to the relative priorities of expenditures. The current ambiguity of the DC leaves it trying to perform many functions assumed by states, counties, and metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) for which it has not demonstrated political competence or financial capability.

Statistical comparisons are particularly illuminating in this regard. For instance, DC crime rates seem horrendous compared to other states' statistics, but not very surprising compared to other inner cities'. DC's population density is 60% above that of a relevant sample for Central Cities and roughly 12 times that of typical MSAs. By all statisical comparisons, the DC appears, at best, to be the inner city of a much larger and very affluent MSA, and as such should not be expected--nor aspire--to perform government functions beyond that level.

return to the top of the page THE DOMAIN OF HIERARCHIAL DEPENDENCE
Hierarchical dependence relates to the political "chain of command". States and territories depend on the federal government; counties depend on states; metropolitan areas (now generally several counties) depend on the broader tax base of their contingent states; and inner cities depend mightily on all the above! As Congress looks at providing "state functions" (to use Speaker Gingrich's terminology)--and supplemental funding--for the DC (which would then equate primarily to a county), questions will surely emerge that Congressional oversight committees are ill-prepared and institutionally reluctant to solve. State functions now being performed by DC are listed under Current Status: DC Governance.

Direct jurisdictional dependence between DC as an inner city and committees of the Congress--including the new financial control board- will surely remain inadequate. Complex linkages between cities, counties, states, and ultimately the federal government, have become essential to the balanced workings--and orderly long-range development--of all communities and services. DC is no exception. Differing roles of federal, state, and local governments in raising revenues and carrying out programs (from welfare to road building) continue to evolve. Furthermore, higher authority tends to moderate or correct aberrant behavior within subordinate jurisdictions. For instance, state school boards monitor local school districts and, if necessary, intervene to rectify local troubles. Many of the District's current woes can be traced to Congressional mistakes prior to and since the "home rule" bill of 1973, which Mayor Barry has now acknowledged to be "unworkable". Despite constitutional prerogatives, Congress is not a city manager.

The DC's current orphan status clearly denies it the chance to develop suitable modern metropolitan area and county/state linkages--in revenues, outlays, and services. Devising a quick-fix that ignores these critical imperatives seems very unwise. Perpetuating constraints on neighborhood development (such as urban building height restrictions) must be reviewed. Assuring that the remaining residents achieve full representation is essential. Speaker Gingrich has suggested making it a separate voting district in Maryland. And allowing--if not requiring--DC to raise revenues from its commuting work force may be key to fiscal stability if it remains a separate entity.

There are clearly many different combinations and permutations within these domains. The public costs of operating each would differ. Costs are obviously not the only consideration in trying to create Speaker Gingrich's "urban jewel", but in order to evaluate the options to enlarge, diminish, restructure, or liquidate the current DC, then the costs and benefits of these changes become a significant consideration.




© copyright 2007 NARPAC, Inc. All rights reserved