This section looks at various issues in the governing of any large American metropolitan area, and focuses on the special role of regionalism in solving many of the problems faced by American cities. This work is summarized immediately below, and then elaborated in several different sections:



This paper suggests that our cities and towns are governed by a five tiered "governance pyramid" with the President and his executive branch at the top directly over the 50 state governments. Next come some 3000 odd county governments followed by the 19,000-odd city governments- all chartered by their state codes. Be they "central cities", "inner cities", or "core cities", they have grown from being well-defined totalities, to being irrationally fenced-in areas within much larger, sprawling metropolitan areas. At the base of the pyramid is the voice of the people at the neighborhood level, in wards, sub-wards, and perhaps someday, "urban villages"--a concept soon to be explored by the DC Agenda Project

The most needed changes in American governance are compelled by the extraordinary changes in America's metropolitan demographics. Antiquated jurisdictional fences inside our metro areas hem some people in and others out--Alice Rivlin's concern for the impoverished hole in the suburban doughnut. Increasingly, experts are turning to regional metro authorities to help "level the playing field" across the out-dated boundaries of most metro areas--the ones with inner cities that have lost their fleeing suburbanites. The doughnut must fix the hole, lest the hole spoil the doughnut.

A deliberate shift towards regional authorities in the Washington Metro Area could solve many pressing District problems. First, such authorities (single or multi-purpose) could help "normalize" the various forces pulling or pushing some to the suburbs, others to the inner city. These could range from housing authorities to com-missions to equalize welfare benefits, business taxes, etc. Second, these authorities could assure that the highest competence in the metro area is benefitting the whole metro area--a common major-item procurement authority, perhaps. Third, such authorities could take on revenue-generating functions that might be less controversial than commuter taxes. Fourth, regional authorities could become surrogates for many state and county administrators. Thus, a metro regional school board could provide over-sight like state school boards elsewhere. In fact, these authorities could assume the powers now being retained in the Congress where subcommittees try to provide state level administrative functions and oversight. One might even imagine a special voter registration authority to enfranchise DC voters in neighboring jurisdictions.

To fix our national capital inner city, the federal government must incentivize regionalization so the neighboring states and beneficiary counties will replace Congressional oversight and become accountable for a level metro area playing field. Congress should regionalize the control boards and fix DC's primary system. And DC's city government must become proficient at city tasks, and restore local pride to its ANCs.

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top of the page Introduction
The President of the United States and the 105th Congress have at long last come to realize that one of the major symbols of the American dream, the US capital city, has become a national embarrassment as the quality of life for the majority of its half-million residents has sunk to "third world status". The District of Columbia's finances are in shambles, its crime rates are getting more out of line with those of other American central cities, and its schools have long since stopped giving most of its students even a rudimentary education.

Government employment is dropping inside DC, and the new (relatively skilled) jobs are being created in the suburbs. The DC is losing its young wage earners who do not wish to raise families in this environment, while keeping its retired and disadvantaged due to favorable welfare payments. Many parts of the District's governing responsibilities are now either in receivership, under court monitors, or under the direct control of presidentially-appointed, congressionally-approved control boards. Refer to Agencies in Receivership.

Major plans are now underway to restore financial integrity to the DC, and to take away from the DC most of the county and state functions it has been trying to perform with ever-decreasing success. In the space of two short years, the District runs the risk of moving from too little attention to too much. Concerned US citizens must now worry whether Congress will move too fast, do an incomplete job, and then lose interest again. NARPAC, Inc. thinks It's important to get it right this time.

NARPAC, Inc. will not try to pin the blame for the current situation, but it is clear that Congress foisted off more costs and tasks on the DC than it should have--in response to racial activism in the early '70s--and the District welcomed more governmental administrative tasks than it should have--in order to create jobs for its very large and relatively unskilled minority population. Its government and its school system have thousands more employees than required by other jurisdictions to perform the same functions. Yet its unemployment rate remains twice that of the suburbs.

Fiscal solvency will require thousands more DC government workers to join the ranks of the unemployed or migrate to greener pastures. Fiscal solvency will produce a smaller government and a smaller population but it will do nothing, per se, to improve the quality of governance, or of the quality of life for most remaining disenchanted residents. In fact, the effects of DC's systemic problems are not unique, even though some of the causes may have been. Many of the DC's demographic and socioeconomic indicators are very similar to those for other inner cities that have become relatively isolated from their suburbs, as analyzed by urban experts (see referenced reading materials

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top of the page Metro Areas Have Outgrown Their Cities

Virtually every expert on urban issues recognizes the vital need to treat modern American metropolitan areas as integrated entities. Inner city problems cannot be solved in isolation, despite current efforts in DC to do so. In the main it falls to state governments to resolve the tensions between the central cities and their suburbs: our constitution gives virtually unlimited authority to the states to control the governance and relationships between their subordinate jurisdictions (counties, cities, townships, etc.). Since the DC lacks a state government (and has been trying unsuccessfully to perform most of their functions) the federal government--via the Congress--will have to step in to help formulate the changes needed. But the objectives will be the same as for other metropolitan areas: the reconciliation of socioeconomic imbalances across the scores, if not hundreds, of diverse and largely outdated jurisdictional boundaries within a single sprawling metro area.

In 1800, when our capital moved from Princeton, New Jersey, Washington was one of several "cities" within the ten mile square "Territory of Columbia", later the County of Columbia. It was not until 1874 that the "territorial government" was abolished, and the District became synonymous with the capital area (reduced 30% in size by Alexandria's retrocession to Virginia in 1846). 120 years later, the District has become an anachronism--accounting for only 2% of the land area, and 15% of the population of its metro area. By 1991 its three nearby states of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware enjoyed total per capita state and local government costs $286 below the national average of $4274, while DC's residents paid $5102 more. Per capita costs could be equalized among the four and remain $19 below the national norm! (See state and local revenues and expenditures

The failure of many US "core cities" to expand their boundaries--to keep the suburbs from "escaping" their social and financial costs--has caused their gradual but inevitable collapse. There is essentially no disagreement among urban experts on cause and effect in inner city degradation. Only the unique and permanent presence of the national capital "federal enclave" (or "theme park") has disguised DC's decline, and kept it from disintegrating faster--or being noticed sooner. But the key element in the national "fix" for metro areas with crumbling, resegregated inner cities is governance reform at all levels. Each level must focus on what it can do best--and be held accountable for doing it well--for the mutual benefit of all.

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page Governance Pyramid
Federal Guidance

There are characteristically five levels of governance that flow down from the top of the "governance pyramid". The President and his executive branch sit at the top, and the individual metro area resident lives at the bottom. There seem to be generally agreed "normal" functions to be carried out at each level. At the federal level, The Executive Branch support the Constitution and implement the legislative decisions of the Congress for the benefit of the people. National policies are set (welfare, safety, etc.), by the Congress, national programs are carried out (defense, space, energy, public lands, etc.)--or incentivized--by the Executive Branch, and fiscal revenues (primarily from income, social security, user, and sales taxes) are re-allocated from their sources to their beneficiaries. At the bottom rung, individual residents interact with their local representatives and "wardheelers" to solve local problems and express local grievances. In between, there are generally three layers of governmental functions carried out by elected and appointed officials.

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top of the page State Level

Federal managers pass their guidance--along with their grants--to the state level--the only lower jurisdiction discussed in the constitution (no doubt because the states pre-dated the federal government). The 50 states apply common measures across their territories, and provide guidance down the line. State functions normally include: public transportation, public welfare, income support (unemployment, etc.); economic development, much of the criminal court system; some of the health care (physical, mental, and drug rehab); and most of the licensing of vehicles, businesses, and professionals. Standards and behavior codes are set for everything from education to speed limits, and "allowable" forms of lower level governance--even election procedures--are legislated. Very basic differences in the freedom of action of county and city governments result for Maryland (quite independent) and Virginia (very restricted). Revenues derive primarily from state income, sales, and gasoline taxes- but are raised primarily from the ubiquitous metro area taxpayers. A good portion of those state-raised revenues are transferred to county and city governments--and particularly to local school districts.

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top of the page County Level

At the county level, some 3000 separate governments place greater emphasis on providing general services ranging from education and police, to general health and water supplies, administered to state standards. County revenues are generally raised primarily through property taxes, and statewide revenues are redistributed to counties and cities in accordance with need. The relations between counties, metro areas and central cities is one of the growing problems. Some cities are much smaller than their counties (Miami), but in other areas, several counties contribute territory to the same metro area (New York). Several large cities have spread across state lines, and at least one across our northern border (Buffalo/Toronto). It is here that the overlapping jurisdictions and outdated boundaries begin to be felt. Thus DC's neighboring counties can become models of modern management, while DC's government barely functions.

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top of the page City Governments

Our 19,000-odd city governments are generally quite restricted in their operational authorities--and in their taxing authorities. Everyday living problems fall to the nation's city mayors: from snow plowing and potholes, to garbage collection, and parking regulations. Nationally (in 1991) over 37% of "local" expenditures were provided from federal and state revenues which were, of course, also paid by metro area residents. In fact, in the Eastern US, about 85% of taxable wealth is generated within those metro areas. Nevertheless, it is city governments that appear to have become most obsolete and least able to keep up with overall American growth patterns--and aspirations.

There are ongoing debates about the best forms of city government: strong council, strong mayor; strong administrator, professional manager, etc. National associations dealing with city governance clearly prefer the growing approach of a strong elected mayor (executive) and a strong elected council (legislative), with a professional, non-elected city manager. That manager is supported by a highly professional staff, separated from politics, but fully accountable to its elected superiors for its actions (and jobs). In many states, the type of city government can be dictated by state legislatures--it is not a constitutionally-guaranteed local prerogative.

Within most cities, there are jurisdictional subdivisions for political purposes (such as DC's eight wards--a number prescribed by the Congress when it established an elected Board of Education in 1968--five years before home rule. Some DC activists are now pressing for more elected officials for their council, apparently trying to emulate rural state legislatures like Vermont's. Read about Democracy First .

Basically, however, the democratic process simply does not function well if, in reality, there is no operative multi-party system. In jurisdictions where the political mindset is overwhelmingly one-sided (which side is immaterial), the elections are decided in the primaries. The rules for the primaries are normally set at the state level. If a winner is selected (and hence elected) by a simple plurality among many primary candidates, then the elections can be skewed by large numbers of aspirants. A mayor can be elected by, say, 21% of the popular vote. If there are run-off primaries for the two or three top candidates, then the chances of gaining a true majority are vastly improved. Changing these elections rules need not be a "democratic" process: in the case of DC, the Congress could easily mandate it. DC's recent special election in Ward 6 was won by one of twelve candidates with only 25% of the votes cast--only 26% of those registered.

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top of the page School Districts

One of the strangest evolutions of American governance is the co existence of separately elected (or appointed) and separately managed school districts that often duplicate county and city boundaries. Many urban school systems have fallen victim to super-politization and become the focus of unabridged racism. In some cities like Boston, less than 20% of the inner city's households have children in the public school system- and DC is not far behind. "Fixing" broken school systems has proven almost impossible, particularly where they are fully "democratic" institutions with strong teachers unions, or when they are run by minorities who feel unfairly challenged by any form of outside intervention.

But even more basic is the issue of whether the schools can really build their students, or whether ultimately, the students can destroy the schools. Many authorities in the analytical community have concluded that once a student body becomes roughly 30% "counter-cultural", or "anti-establishmentarian", then the school staff lacks the mechanisms to induce the students to learn. This is turn would suggest that the educational success of the school is ultimately determined by the character of the community which provides its student body. If the managers of the school system are divorced from the those elements of government responsible for community (and public housing) development, then fixing the roofs and improving teacher quality may have little impact on the subsequent standardized test scores.

Hence, even state intervention does not always work, but if there is no higher authority to intervene--as in DC's case--there may simply be no practical solution to "fixing" broken schools within the inner city, unless the community is "fixed" first: a Catch Twenty-Two situation. Some jurisdictions are now looking at either transferring their students to the suburbs, or trying to get suburban assistance in running their inner city schools. They are also turning (with limited success) to the notion of "contracting out" school management to competitive, profit-making business organizations, presumably less susceptible to padding payrolls with political patronage, city employee family members, and other common practices of the urban mindset. Less thought has been given to "contracting out" to more successful adjacent government agencies, i.e. school districts. For instance, since DC's per student costs are 30% higher, the suburban counterparts should turn a handsome profit if paid DC rates for each transfer student.

An unacceptably bad school system is arguably one of the leading drivers in the exodus from inner cities--led by the whites in the '70s during the initial "shock" of school desegregation, but now repeated by those minorities who can afford to migrate to the suburbs and seek a better life, and a better chance for their offspring. City planners are faced with the unenviable task of attracting taxpaying residents back to the inner cities. DC's non-voting Representative is vociferously pushing a tax reduction plan to "bribe" its future middle class to return, but has no realistic plan to rejuvenate the schools or lower the crime rate. It might be more practical to populate inner cities with childless households--an increasingly common phenomenon. In fact, "DINK" (dual-income, no kids) households provide an ideal combination of high income and low demand for services--the very residents that inner cities need. Perhaps "dinkification" should replace "gentrification" (attracting richer families) as a way to upgrade and eliminate the increasingly hollow (empty) cores of inner cities. Surely it is folly for inner cities to strive to replicate their suburbs and their "soccer moms".

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top of the pageNeighborhood Level

Finally, each ward is generally broken into smaller subgroups (5-10) at the neighborhood level, with an elected (or appointed) leader. These groups, like DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), are intended to provide a voice from each locality to what otherwise might seem a remote and indifferent City Hall. The ANCs report up to each ward's council member. Some future city planners now refer to "urban villages" as a way to maintain local cultural identities within the ever expanding urban areas. America's "Chinatowns" are a surviving case in point. Such urban villages could supplant ANCs in order to achieve greater community interest.

Experts consider Washington's ANC network a very modern and acceptable form of grass roots political involvement. Yet in many wards it has fallen into disuse by an estranged and skeptical public due to conflict both within the commissioners and the Council, and between the Council and the mayor. To complicate matters further, there is a separate group of local Citizens Associations (CA) that attempt to provide similar, but supposedly apolitical, community voices. In some parts of the city, the ANCs appear to accomplish more than the CAs, and in others, the reverse is true. But in fact, neither group feels that the DC Government is listening.

Rejuvenating DC's grassroots voice(s) of the people is vital to restoring citizen involvement in their city government, but that may be more a matter of rebuilding local pride and confidence than organizational restructuring. Democracy does not function among a dispirited, disengaged electorate. But there is nothing statutory standing in the way of improving these organizations--such as lack of full Congressional representation--except apathy at the local level. DC's independent authority on these matters is the Federation of Citizens Associations .

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top of the page DC's Missing Levels

DC's unique problems in governance stem from the total lack of state and county layers of government above, and the now dysfunctional grassroots system below. A relatively bloated and unskilled city government has not been able to play the three (and a half) roles. States are generally substantially larger in population than any one of their several metro areas. They are elected by a more representative socio-economic cross section of current day Americana and thus can moderate the excesses of any particular atypical set of claimants (such as too many old people, sick people, disadvantaged, or extremists). In essence, they guard against the "tyranny of the minority"--a potential weakness of any fully democratic process. Congress is being urged to take back some of these non-city functions--and their funding--but Congress has no equivalent to state or county administrators. Other mechanisms are needed.

Of more immediate importance, the Congress has retained the right to oversee the City's budget, and to override, if necessary, any legislation passed by the City Council. There is little question that this was the handiwork of southern Congressmen deeply concerned about giving true home rule to a city with a clear majority of minority voters. Moreover, it has, by law, denied the city the right to work towards "regionalization", by refusing to allow, say, a commuter tax on the very large number of suburbanites earning their wages within the city limits.

There are also clear conflicts of interest for Congressional representatives from suburban areas dictating the limits on how the core city can raise its revenues and conduct its business. The present chairman of the House DC Oversight Committee is from an immediately neighboring suburban (Virginia) district. He has openly claimed in public fora that he has absolutely no conflict of interest, because he will always side with the best interests of Fairfax County against the District. Both he and the senior senator from Virginia are currently trying to legislate federal jobs out of the District into their own suburbs. Any long-term solution to the DC's governance problems should get the Congress out of the role of a county or state government--particularly if it remains averse to balanced metro area development.

On the other hand, many metropolitan areas have found the city/county tiers inadequate to cope with the region-wide problems of the larger metro areas, where common problems from bus routes to sewer lines cross dozens of jurisdictions, often with quite separate and uneven taxing and spending patterns. In some "ideal" cases, cities have been empowered by their state laws to "annex" additional territory as the populations grow and sprawl. For instance, Baltimore City's boundaries grew from 4.6 square miles in 1797 to its present size of 80.2 square miles--and still a small fraction of the total expanse of its metro area (now merging with DC's). Obviously, DC has not had that opportunity. In fact, it lost a third of its original area when the City of Alexandria "retroceded" to Virginia, and Arlington County was formed to encompass the rest of the then sparsely populated area.

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top of the page Metro Area Regional Authorities

The more progressive metro areas that can no longer reach out by annexation to embrace their spreading suburbs and maintain a commonality of purpose, taxation, etc., are turning to the installation of area-wide authorities to handle common area-wide issues. Gradually they are transferring governance functions to regional authorities that embrace their entire region, even though lesser and antiquated jurisdictions remain within. In Washington, of course, there is the Metro Transit Authority, and the newer Water/Sewer authority. There is also a regional "Council of Governments" (restricted by custom to planning only) and a Greater Washington Board of Trade, whose business representatives had far greater authority when DC was run for 80 years by three Commissioners. (For more information on the Council of Governments, see COG). There is also a tri-state Delmarva Commission to keep things running smoothly on the shared Delaware/Maryland/-Virginia Peninsula.

But these fledgling steps at "regionalization" have had very little success in "leveling the playing field" between the inner city and its extraordinarily prosperous suburbs. There is no common revenue-raising, no leveling of, say, property assessments, and little ability to handle "spill-over" issues like crime and emergency health care.

A substantial number of cities have moved towards greater regionalization. Some have done it to reconcile differences between adjacent counties in the same metro area, others to normalize differences between adjacent states. Many are using single-focus regional authorities devoted to a particular function (ports, airports, water, transportation, public housing etc.) Some of these single-purpose authorities have been granted (by state law) the right to set metro-wide tax rates to cover the costs of that function (the Washington Transit Authority does not have this ability). In a few cases, there are now multi-purpose metro-wide taxing authorities that raise a much larger share of the region's revenues and get into common tax assessment procedures etc. In general, these regional organizations have satisfied specific needs to harmonize functions in areas where county and state administrations were inadequate.

Other opportunities exist to streamline professional services and eliminate bureaucracies now riddled with graft and incompetence. For instance, numerous reports attest to the sorry state of the DC's ability to effectively let competitive contracts for procurement of goods and services. Attempts to "beat the system" persist despite the best efforts of the Control Board. One alternative would be to establish a professional (non-elective) Regional Contracting Agency, in which accepted national practices would be employed by skilled, trained, personnel not on local government payrolls. Economies of scale could result, but more important would be the development of a professional cadre of procurement officials, and a stable of competitive contractors with clearly available records of past performance. A far different example would be the establishment of a regional training center for the development of future government employees. Some states provide such training.

In this respect, however, DC has no county or state level governments of its own, and is surrounded by two very different states which have legislated very different kinds of county governments. Here the advantages of empowering a broader range of regional authorities could be more useful. Eventually, they could come to represent "virtual" state functions, and be applied more broadly than needed by "normal" US metro areas. Such single- and multi-purpose authorities are brought into being by compacts approved by the relevant state legislatures (not popular vote) and become part of their state codes. Congress would have to serve this function for DC, and surely has the clout--albeit not the constitutional authority--to make it happen.

In fact, Maryland and Virginia might prefer such arrangements to accepting a Congressionally set commuter tax based on DC's clearly higher costs of doing business. For instance, the Congress might somehow oblige Virginia and Maryland to pay some of the costs of educating DC students in DC schools (just as states reallocate their revenues among needy school districts). The states might prefer to educate them in their own school systems at considerably lower cost. In any event, once the requisite compacts are ratified by the states involved, Congress would, in essence, be ceding some of its constitutional responsibilities to these regional authorities, made up of accountable experts. Congress could thus work itself out of various oversight jobs it is ill-equipped to carry out.

But the more important long-range federal role would be to incentivize the greater use of metro authorities in all the many US metro areas that suffer from outdated jurisdictional boundaries. Because extensive grants still flow from federal revenues to state and local coffers, potential federal leverage is readily available. For instance, the federal government could mandate that at least some share of its grant funds would be transferred only to metro--rather than state--authorities. Or a more favorable cost-sharing formula could be used when metro authorities are the recipients.

Furthermore, in some cases the greater need for such authorities is to undo the problems of the past. For instance, both Montgomery County to DC's north, and Fairfax County to its west, have very enlightened regulations concerning public and subsidized housing. These codes have largely prevented the growth of slums and ghettos where the disadvantaged accumulate, and sink further into crime and despair. The District, on the other hand, has any number of such areas already in existence, and the problem is how to eliminate them in a manner acceptable (for the first time) to its displaced residents. The history of DC is a litany of failure to relocate, disperse, and eliminate such pockets of poverty. In fact, the city has several unfinished superhighways halted by resistance from the disadvantaged raising the specter of racial bias. That some of these urban renewal programs were openly referred to by a few Congressmen back in the '60s as "black removal programs" did little to dispel such claims. But now the potential dispersal area must reach to the limits of the metro area, not just the limits of the District. The ability to assimilate diversity surely increases when the threat of being overwhelmed by it is dispelled.

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top of the page DC DISENFRANCHISED

One other unique problem for the District is that its citizens do not have a voting representative in either house of Congress. It is not at all clear that the lack of this inalienable voting right has caused many of the District's problems. Most of them arise from very poor local management of city and state functions. Nevertheless, the nation's capital is surely entitled to full voting representation at every level, unless it is reverted to the status of a non-voting, non-taxpaying territory like Guam. It is difficult to imagine that such an arrangement would be appropriate for our nation's capital. DC's long struggle for political representation is explained in a GUPPI Backgrounder.

Three of the many different options for "fixing" DC's problems address this issue of enfranchisement directly. The first is the DC's long-held, but increasingly wistful, hope of becoming a separate state with its own two senators and one representative. DC's statehood party draws a few thousand votes in every election, and Congress has frequently encouraged such expectations, but without any real hope of fulfillment. The current plan to take back these state functions and funds cannot be interpreted as a vote of confidence for a 51st "State of New Columbia". (See Statehood Party A more rigorous treatment of the pros and cons of a statehood is presented in a GUPPI Backgrounder.

The second approach was tried and failed despite the very best efforts of the DC League of Women Voters: a constitutional amendment to treat DC as a state for election purposes, giving it two Senators and one Representative. At the end of the seven year ratification period, only 16 states had approved it. Some think it may be time to try again, but many others believe that the nation's larger cities would want the same treatment. Others suggest that some other amendment which provided voting rights within a neighboring jurisdiction might be more successful.

The third, and possibly more practical, approach would be to "retrocede" most of the District (save the "federal enclave") back to Maryland. Once the control boards and the Congress have restored fiscal solvency to the DC, such a move should become much more attractive to Maryland voters, if not DC voters. The advantages of having DC operate under Maryland state administrators are extensive. In this case, Maryland would decide whether DC would remain a single voting district and entity, or whether there would be redistricting of the existing ones. Many Marylanders worry about taking on "another Baltimore City", although, in fact, DC is a far more prosperous place, and permanently a far greater national attraction. But if the suburbs do not fix their core city, the core city will eventually downgrade its suburbs. The Committee for a Capital City makes a compelling case for retrocession, and more is certain to be heard of this alternative. An interesting discussion of both retrocession and "semi- retrocession" is also presented in that same GUPPI Backgrounder.

Returning DC to Maryland could solve the voting problem, but does not automatically solve the issues of broader regional management of common services to the metro area. More regional authorities would still be highly desirable, and probably somewhat easier to negotiate between two states absent the Congressional factor. On the other hand, the federal government could be useful in providing incentives to many unbalanced US metro areas to join together to solve their problems. The threat of more expensive federal solutions being mandated from Washington might encourage state and local jurisdictions to provide cheaper, better tailored solutions of their own.

Another solution, consistent with regionalization, would be to divide up the District's wards and allow some to vote in neighboring Congressional Districts--perhaps involving some regional board of elections. Such an approach would require some new legal foundation, perhaps a constitutional amendment. This is similar to the GUPPI option of "semi- retrocession" mentioned above. A current court appeal (Howard vs [Maryland] State Administrative Board, et al) will decide whether to treat DC residents like others living on federal reservations and required to vote in neighboring jurisdictions. These options would have the advantage of obliging more members of Congress to accept responsibilities for the future of their metro area, without changing the current total number of Congressional seats. There are four, if not five, Congressional Districts with direct and vital interests in the future of this metro area's core city. Absorbing their closest neighboring DC wards would not reverse the current political majority in any of them, even if they retained their urban voting preferences. Again, implementation of such a new and complex voter registration program might best be handled through some kind of metro area voter registration authority.

The history of DC's disenfranchisement is an interesting one: in fact, it may have resulted from an oversight. According to prepared remarks by Barbara Yeomans, a longstanding member of the DC League of Women Voters, before the DC Agenda Project :

"There is a curious history. This is addressed in a 1978 publication by the Self-Determination Coalition, "A Simple Case of Democracy Denied, An Analysis of the DC Voting Rights Amendment."

"According to the brochure, in the first years under the Constitution, the few residents in the territory of the federal district (later DC) voted in Maryland and Virginia. In 1800 there were only about 3200 residents, way below the number required by the Constitution for a Congressional District, let alone statehood, which was 50,000. When Congress moved here, it passed legislation to reduce uncertainty as to the exact laws governing the District. The intent was "'to allow Congress at some future enter on a system of legislation in detail...'"In the process, however, District residents were disenfranchised as a consequence. There evidently did not seem to be much reason for the Congress to move promptly to rectify matters, not only because of the sparse population but also probably because many connected with the federal government would return home part of the year.

"The Constitution itself, however, does not require disenfranchisement nor does it prohibit voting representation for the District. Per extensive testimony, the lack of clear provision for the District in the Constitution seems to be an oversight. Maryland Representative Gilbert Gude testified in June 1975 before Mr. Edwards' House Judiciary Committee that: " it appears that slight attention was actually paid to the constitutional provision establishing the seat of the Government, either by the Constitutional Convention, or by the various ratifying State conventions." With the federal district only on paper, evidently there was no immediate constituency for the District. Furthermore, in the "Federalist Papers" (43) regarding creation of the District, Madison clearly implied voting rights:

"'The inhabitants will find sufficient inducements of interest to become willing parties to the cession; as they will have had their voice in the election of the Government, which is to exercise authority over them...'"

Precedent for going the route of a constitutional amendment was established when the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961, giving DC residents the right to vote for President and Vice-President, but one wonders if alternate routes are forever ruled out. After all, Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution does give the Congress "exclusive legislative powers over that District".

Yet another interesting approach is espoused by Carl Bergman, a 30-year activist in DC affairs, and a regular attendee of the DC Story "Electronic Back Fence". He also believes that "When Congress moved to DC, it was assumed that we had lost the vote (in Maryland), but no statute expressly said so". Like many others, he believes that Maryland might eventually come to appreciate having a larger Congressional delegation.

At the beginning of July, 1998, two new efforts were launched by DC residents to restore their rights to have a voice in the Congress.

The first--and more extreme--is a suit filed in the US District Court arguing that DC residents are entitled to vote in Congress and to manage their own municipal affairs. LaRoche's suit would disband the Control Board, forbid the President of the US to enforce and Congressional laws applicable only to DC, and facilitate the opportunity for DC residents to vote for either statehood or unification with a state in order to get voting representation in both the Senate and the House.

The second approach, preferred by many legal experts, starts with a grievance petition to the Congress claiming that fundamental human rights of DC residents are being violated by denial of full representation, under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Over the years, this Amendment has been interpreted increasingly broadly by the courts, and has been previously applied to protecting the rights of citizens residing in federal enclaves (such as the National Institutes of Health). Its primary proponent, American University law professor Jamin Raskin, claims that there is no constitutional bar to Congress permitting DC residents to vote. Experienced legal analysts seem to feel that this argument has merit, and that it may simply depend on the level of pro-activism in the court hearing the case. However, proponents agree that it may be harder for the courts to craft a practical solution than to certify the merits of the case. The courts do not, of course, have the power to oblige the Congress to take certain actions.

Three events in early 1999 brought more attention to the District's lack of a vote in the Congress. The president's defense lawyer succeeded in interjecting it into the impeachment trial by noting that unlike all the senators in the chamber, he had no representation. More important, perhaps, the founder of the Committee for a Capital City recommended to the three-judge panel hearing the District's appeal to be given the vote as a matter of human rights, that one solution would be to allow DC voters to vote in Maryland. His compelling Oped piece in the Washington Post is included. This approach is consistent with NARPAC's earlier suggestion that DC voters might be given the choice of voting in either Maryland or Virginia. Then Attorney General Janet Reno weighed in with her own backing for voting rights for DC citizens, asserting that full representation would be appropriate.

Whether or not voting rights are central to the issues of developing a capital city of which all Americans can be more proud, the granting of such rights is clearly central to the capital city residents' pride in themselves. The ramifications of voting rights are treated in the final section of the DC Agenda Final Report, and in the sixth GUPPI Backgrounder. More recently, there has been an interesting discussion in DC Watch's 'themail' concerning the constitutionality of the two petitions being heard in the courts in the summer of 1999. Those comments have been consolidated in a NARPAC summary, attached. It was not until March of 2000, however, that the courts made their opinions known.

return to the top of the pageCOURTS REJECT PLEAS FOR DC VOTE IN CONGRESS

Virtually all of the year 2000 was spent--wasted, in fact--in trying to get favorable opinions from local and higher courts on the rights of DC citizens to have a full and equal vote in Congress. The two suits had been filed in 1998, and both cases were heard together on April 19th of 1999. These are discussed in the previous section, and the Post reporting on that hearing is reproduced here.

On March 20, 2000 a three-judge federal court panel issued a ruling that DC residents do not have a legal right to a vote in the Congress. In its 2 to 1 decision, the panel acknowledged that it is an "inequity", but the majority said that the Constitution and Supreme Court had created that inequity and that "those seeking voting rights for the District should Adorn to the political process, not the courts". Here is the complete text of the Washington Post news report on that decision. Undeterred, the activists decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

In April, the Chairman of the DC Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, Tom Davis (who was kind enough to present the awards in the NARPAC Essay Contest) presented his views in a major OpEd article in the Washington Post. It is reproduced here in its entirety:

by Tom Davis, Sunday, April 9, 2000 ; Washington Post, page B03

The recent ruling by a federal court panel that D.C. residents do not have voting rights in Congress came as no surprise to me or to most other students of American jurisprudence. All passions aside, the U.S. Constitution is clear on this point, and the judges' hands were tied. Trying to secure congressional representation through litigation was a long shot at best. Sure, the moral case may be bulletproof, but the legal hurdles are insurmountable, beginning with the Constitution's instruction--as I read it--that only state residents may elect members of Congress.

That's why the solution will not be found in the courts. Only a constitutional amendment will give Washingtonians a voting voice in Congress.

The U.S. District Court judges were sympathetic to D.C. voters even as they rejected their arguments. As the majority wrote, "We are not blind to the inequity of the situation plaintiffs seek to change." The opinion relied largely on Article I of the Constitution, which says that members of Congress shall be chosen by "the People of the several States." Because the District is not a state, its residents do not share that right, a majority of the judges concluded.

Even the plaintiffs in the case do not dispute the District's lack of statehood. Instead, they argue that denying the District a vote in Congress contradicts core democratic principles, and I agree.

Have the basic issues of fairness and justice been resolved by the recent ruling? Certainly not.

Mayor Anthony Williams recently summed up that injustice well. "Over the last 200 years, residents of the District of Columbia have fought in nine wars and paid billions of dollars in federal taxes. We have marched and sacrificed to help extend democratic freedoms to people in faraway lands as well as here at home. Yet in our nation's capital--the epicenter of democracy--we lack the most fundamental democratic right of all: the right to vote," Williams was quoted in this newspaper as saying.

We are left with a profound democratic paradox: how to reconcile the vision that the Framers of our Constitution had for the nation's capital without denying its residents the primary tool of democratic participation.

The panel's majority summarized this conundrum: "[M]any courts have found a contradiction between the democratic ideals upon which this country was founded and the exclusion of District residents from congressional representation. All, however, have concluded that it is the Constitution and judicial precedent that create the contradiction."

Those who back voting rights for the District should turn to the political process, not the courts, the judges wrote. I agree. Because the case involves voting rights, it will be reviewed by the Supreme Court. But in my opinion, that appeal will not provide the plaintiffs the relief they seek. That's where we members of Congress come in.

It would be easy to let the issue rest; the court has ruled, after all. But those basic issues of fairness and justice compel me to try to convince my colleagues to join me in working toward ratification of a constitutional amendment that would give the District voting representation in the House.

It's worth noting that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and other D.C.-area officials have asked me not to pursue a legislative remedy until the court case is resolved--and that includes what appears to be an imminent appeal to the Supreme Court. They fear that any legislative pursuit could prejudice the court and that it could rule that since legislators have taken up the issue, the court need not do so. I will abide by their request.

But as soon as the appeal process is over, I will say to Congress: The time to act is now. It may be an uphill battle, though. Last year, during debates over the D.C. budget, I spoke in favor of allowing the city government to use city funds to pursue the lawsuit just decided. If Congress wouldn't allow the city to vote on the House floor, at least we should allow it to spend its own money to pursue legal redress, I argued. That request was denied.

There are some, particularly within my own party, who aren't interested in bringing the District into the House. But their arguments have more to do with politics than justice. For example, this is an election year in which my party's slim majority in the House hangs in the balance. Some of my colleagues presume that, if they could, D.C. residents would "automatically" elect a Democrat to the House. That may or may not be the case. As chairman of the House Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, it is my job to ensure that my party expands its majority. But I do not wish to accomplish this task on the backs of D.C. residents.

Justice should never have to wait, especially for politics.

So where do we go from here? Clearly, we await whatever review may or may not be forthcoming from the high court. Then, there are possible legislative remedies to consider, but none of them is as likely to succeed as a constitutional amendment.

For instance, Congress could reexamine calls for D.C. statehood. We could carve the Federal Triangle out of the District and hand the rest back to Maryland. Or we could allow D.C. residents to vote with Marylanders both for two senators and for a House seat. Or, we could permit D.C. residents to vote for a House member only, and perhaps allow them to vote with Marylanders in Senate races.

Each of these approaches is fraught with political uncertainty and public opposition. I've heard the argument that the problem with having the District vote with Maryland is that the city would risk losing its "identity." And for the most part, Marylanders have shown little interest in any proposal that involves "incorporating" the District into their state.

I am among those lawmakers who do not support granting the District two senators--with or without statehood. Just as fairness dictates giving the city a vote in the House, fairness also precludes giving a city the size of Washington two senators. Moreover, previous attempts to amend the Constitution to allow the city to elect two senators have gone nowhere. In my opinion, such efforts are overreaching.

Which brings me back to the Constitution. Throughout our nation's history we have recognized the need to occasionally improve that document's language and purpose, to remedy wrongs and adapt to ever-changing political and social realities. African Americans and women were once denied suffrage (and, of course, much more). Those injustices were overcome through constitutional amendments, and the current one should be also.

Will moving forward with this measure be politically easy? Not at all. But I have great faith in my colleagues and their willingness to let reason prevail. We need to forge a consensus among members with disparate views. I believe that Congress will ultimately grant voting rights to the District of Columbia because--and it's really no more complex than this--it is the right thing to do.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on setting a standard for democracy and democratic principles for the rest of the world. And yet, here in the District those principles have gone awry. Failing to permit the 550,000 residents of the nation's capital to vote in Congress is difficult to rationalize--because, at its core, it is anti-democratic.

* Republican Tom Davis represents Virginia's 11th District in the U.S. House of Representatives and is chairman of the Government Reform Committee's subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

Despite Chairman Davis' advice, the activists, with strong support from the DC Counsel's office, appealed the 3-judge decision to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, these actions triggered an ingenious suggestion that the District should "advertise" its plight by adopting a new motto for it license plates: "Taxation without Representation". With remarkable rapidity the notion became a proposal and received the endorsement of the mayor, the DC Council, and Delegate Norton. By the end of June, the appropriate approvals had been given, and the new plates became available for newly registered vehicles--and decals appeared that could be added to existing plates. The slogan was widely disseminated at both of the major party conventions in the summer of 2000.

It was not until October of 2000, that the Supreme Court delivered its terse decision that DC residents did not have a constitutional right to a voting representative in Congress, "thus ending a two-year legal battled waged by a diverse coalition of community leaders and activists", to quote from the attached Washington Post article. Only one Supreme Court justice had even voted to hear oral arguments. Activists now plan to turn their attention back to the Congress. A letter to the Editors of the Post explained their intentions:

by Walter Smith and Amy Whitcomb Slemmer* in the Washington Post, Sunday, October 22, 2000; Page B08

As reported on The Post's front page of Oct. 17, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower-court decision holding that citizens living in the nation's capital have no constitutional right to voting representation in Congress. That's the bad news.

The good news is that, far from indicating that the District's battle for voting rights has been lost, the court's decision moves the battle to where it can and should be won--in Congress, not in the courts. Here is why.

First, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower-court opinion that the District and the plaintiffs have a "just" cause, that their "grievances are serious" and that the continued denial of voting representation is "inequitable."

Second, the lower court agreed with the District and the plaintiffs that there is no "justification for denying District residents the right to vote in Congress."

Then why did the Supreme Court decline to hear the case? For one reason: The language of the Constitution gives the vote to the "people of the several states," and the District is not a state. End of case, but not the end of the battle.

As the lower court made clear, even though the Constitution may confer certain rights only on citizens of "states," Congress has power under the Constitution to treat D.C. residents as though they were citizens of a state. As the court said, it is particularly appropriate for Congress to exercise that power where there is no sound justification for denying D.C. citizens rights that belong to all "state" citizens.

So the loss in the Supreme Court actually has moved the District closer to winning voting representation. The courts have determined that:

* It is inequitable to deny D.C. citizens voting rights.

* There is no good justification for that denial.

* Congress has the power to pass a law treating D.C. citizens as "state" citizens for the purpose of voting.

It is time to end 200 years of second-class status for the 515,000 people who live in the heart of democracy. It is time that Congress gave us the vote.

* (Walter Smith and Amy Whitcomb Slemmer are, respectively, the lawyer for the District in the recent Supreme Court case and executive director of DC Vote.

Meanwhile, Delegate Norton has promised to introduce legislation at the next session of the Congress to restore her full voting rights, which had been granted temporarily, and the summarily removed by the Republican leadership under Newt Gingrich.

NARPAC Commentary

This organization clearly supports the basic premise that DC citizens should share equal voting rights with other Americans--even though we believe that many of DC's current problems are self-inflicted, and that few of the external ones will be eliminated by a full voting representative in the House. Like most other outside observers, NARPAC does not believe that DC should become a separate state, nor that it should have two senators of its own.

Moreover, NARPAC firmly believes that the issue of voting rights is only one of several that needs to be addressed in the Congress. Another relates to the "micro-oversight' of the DC exercised by the four Congressional subcommittees, and still another relates to the conflicts of interest among subcommittee members that deny addressing such key DC matters as "regional poverty sharing". These broader issues are also addressed in several editorials and NARPAC correspondence.

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top of the pageRegionalism Is Being Overlooked in DC
At the present time, very limited thought is being given to practical avenues for either representation or regionalization. The Control Board, school trustees, and court-appointed receivers now overseeing the majority of DC governmental functions are preoccupied with restoring a sound fiscal basis for current (and probably diminished) city responsibilities. To this end, these emergency authorities have "charters" that appear to be very constrained geographically: the words "regional" or metropolitan area" do not appear. Where outside assistance is suggested, it is from the more policy-oriented federal level, not from the administratively-oriented state and county levels within the region.

There seems to be some unwritten rule that the White House and the Congress have decided to make the District as good as its residents can make it, but not as good as the surrounding region--or the entire country for that matter--could make it, working together. The Control Board and school trustees, and now the newly proposed Economic Development Corporation, are all populated with DC (not area) residents. How can the impoverished inner city attract economic development in uncoordinated competition with its larger and wealthier suburbs? This might be appropriate for some jurisdictions around the US, but it seems starkly inappropriate for the nation's capital.

The laws establishing the Financial Control Board do not mention the metro region. In fact, it would appear highly desirable to again modify Public Law 104-8 (as amended by Public Law 104-208 of 9/30/96) to encourage the cooperation of the entire metropolitan area. After all, the suburban counties are considered some of the most prosperous, successful, and efficient in the country--fine examples of the American Dream in action. The catchy phrase that DC is "not quite a state, and not quite a city" misrepresents the case. In fact, our nation's capital is not quite an inner city--since it has virtually no ties and obligations with its own suburbs.

Some of the best intra-regional efforts currently underway are either completely volunteer (various religious groups, for instance, trying to improve the lot of the homeless), or quasi-official organizations such as chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, boards of trade, and voter leagues. (Read more about the Washington Regional Alliance. Other charitable organizations focus on specific elements of the problem, such as the excellent volunteer work of College Bound in assisting DC students to get into college. There is no question that such organizations can help harness the energies of the community and provide new spirit to the community. They are, as mathematicians would say, necessary but not sufficient. There must also be government commitments at all levels to cooperate and collectively exercise their authorities in those areas where they are best equipped to do so--at all levels in the governance pyramid. Nothing less than a full combined effort can restore full national pride to the Washington Metro Area.

However, local DC jurisdictions often act against regionalism. For instance, the Chairperson of the DC Council's Committee on Local, Regional, and Federal Affairs fervently believes that the District should avoid expanded regional cooperation because she believes "DC always comes out on the wrong end of such arrangements". Furthermore, Chairman Davis's recent attempt to get the valuable federal land to be vacated by the Lorton Prison transferred at no cost to the state of Virginia is another example of conflict of interest between narrow consituents' interests and broader regional interests.

For more detailed discussions of the options for enhancing "regional cooperation" in the DC area--and other US metro areas as well--turn to the following chapter on regionalism.

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The table below presents NARPAC, Inc.'s updated listing of functions and aims within this general category, offering simple goals and approaches for achieving them, and noting the progress (if any) to date. The tabulations and entries are clearly preliminary, but are intended to indicate the full range of steps needed to assure long-range solutions to the District's systemic problems.


Revised Version -- January, 2002 -- changes from original in green

Function/Aim (o)NARPAC goal
(>>>)approaches to solution
Progress to Date
FEDERAL LEVEL o Decrease Micromanagement, Increase DC Representation .
Oversight of DC Gov't >>> Dissolve DC subcommittees of the House/Senate, or.... no action
. >>>... At least limit role, reduce conflict of interest members minor improvements
Oversight DC Future >>> Create Joint Committee of the Congress no action
Oversight DC Grants >>> Set up Fed agency budget line-items for services provided no action
. >>> Continue valuable Fed DC Task Force ignored by Bush
DC Representation >>> Gain equal right to vote in Congress, or... legal actions unsuccessful to date
. >>> Devise means to vote in neighboring jurisdiction no such plan
. >>> Gain full House vote for DC Delegate rejected so far by House
Foster Regionalism >>> Provide Federal grants/matching funds to regional bodies seldom done
. >>> Grant seed funding to regional COGs no action
. >>> Develop Congressional Metro Caucuses available ad hoc
STATE/REGIONAL o Enhance Regional Approach to Solving Area Problems .
Existing Organizations >>> Revitalize/Expand Council of Gov'ts (MWCOG) Md,Va willing
. >>> Strengthen current regional groups, joint planning minor progress
. >>> Broaden National Capital Planning Commission to region no action
New Organization >>> Form regional standards boards under COG viz. COG/DWI stds no new items
. >>> Establish Regional Authorities, viz MWRTA no new groups
. >>> Establish Functional Centers (trng, proc, maint.) no action
. >>> Press Regional Economic Development v pushing 2012 Olympic bid
LOCAL LEVEL o Enhance Operation of Democratic Institutions .
Election Practices >>> Screen voter registration rolls no action
. >>> Adopt run-off primaries no action
. >>> Clarify election campaign funding laws no action
. >>> Raise criteria for small parties no action
Ward Structure >>> Fewer Wards, more at-large Council seats? paired wards for new School Bd
. >>> Consider divesting 'East of the Anacostia' to PG County very unlikely
Neighborhood Voice >>> Revitalize neighborhood assns, commissions some progress: new neighborhood planners
. >>> Strengthen links to Council members some progress

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page This page was updated on Jan 5, 2002




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