Washington, D.C., seeks national political identity

Washington, D.C., residents are like comedian Rodney Dangerfield -- they feel they "don't get no respect" from the rest of the United States. The national capital's population makes it America's 15th largest city. It has all the problems of most major urban areas -- and one more. It is, as it has been since the District of Columbia was first carved from Maryland and Virginia, a ward of Congress. The city has a mayor, council, and school board but Capitol Hill funds its budget and holds veto power over the municipal government.

Washington's residents want more control over thier common lot, and there are two moves afoot to give them the "respect" they so desire. But neither seems to have much prospect of moving to fruition soon.

One is to grant full statehood to the 67-square-mile federal enclave; the other is a proposed Constitutional amendment which would provide full representation in Congress for the District of Columbia -- two senators and a least one representative. The district now has a non-voting delegate in the House of Representative.

The election last November of President Reagan and a large bloc of conservative GOP lawmakers was not a good portent for either statehood or direct congressional representation. Washington's population is some 71 percent black, it is predominantly Democratic, and last November it voted heavily for President Carter.

But some progress has been made, especially on the statehood matter:

* Voters approved the idea by a 3-to-2 margin in last November's District of Columbia election. The proposition was placed on the ballot through initiative petition.

* Congress had until March 10 to veto the measure, but did not do so.

The way now is clear for election next fall of 45 delegates -- five from each of Washington's eight districts and five at-large -- to a 1982 constitutional convention. This historic conclave is expected to spend several months drafting a statehood charter to be put before District of Columbia citizens.

If it were approved, Congress and the President would have the final say as to statehood.

All but the original 13 states came into the Union by this means. Alaska and Hawaii, the two newest, were admitted in 1959.

Critics of the move to make the District of Columbia a state maintain that it flies in the face of the intentions of the framers of the US Constitution.

Edward Guinan, chairman of the 51st State Committee, counters that things have changed considerably since the nation's founding some two centuries ago. He and others behind the controversial proposal, view it as the most effective means of improving the plight of the capital city, which they view as "a stepchild of the federal government."

The proposed statehood move would go a step beyond the proposed full-representation amendment, passed by both houses of Congress in 1978 and now being debated in state lawmaking chambers from coast to coast.

Mr. Guinan and other statehood advocates question whether they can win ratification. The legislatures of not less than 38 states (three-fourths of the 50) must approve the proposal by the late 1985. Thus far, only nine --chusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- have given their assent.

Despite the slow progress, including the amendment's rejection by at least seven states in the past couple of years, strategists for the Self Determination for D.C. Coalition appear all the more determined. The big push during the next few months will be in 14 states where prospects for approval appear brightest, says Kurt Vorndran, coalition executive director.

Thus far this year the Oregon Senate has approved the measure, and House action is expected shortly.

Other states where 1981 ratification efforts are under way or planned include California, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Although the coalition is pushing the full-representation amendment, it has not taken a stand either for or against the statehood campaign. Some of its members, Common Cause foremost, are supporting the move. At least one, the League of Women Voters, is opposed.

Some of those seeking full voting representation in Congress for the District of Columbia concede that separate statehood might be the only alternative if the pending constitutional amendment fails to gain ratification by enough states.

With 635,000 residents, the district would outrank four of the current 50 states --Alaska, Delaware, Vermont, and Wyoming --in population. And it has almost as many people as North Dakota.

Statehood advocates suggest that a small portion of the city, perhaps a two-mile area around the main federal government buildings, might be set asside as a special enclave.

The District of Columbia was put together by the nation's founding fathers, using land taken from Maryland and Virginia. Congress gave all the Virginia land back to that state more than a century ago. In addition, two parcels were separated from the district -- the Battery Cove area in 1927 and the Washington National Airport in 1945. But instead of being returned to Maryland, these tracts were annexed to Virginia.

These actions, in the opinions of Guinan and his pro-statehood colleagues, support their contention that before the District of Columbia could become a state Maryland would have to give its assent, something which might be politically impossible.

Much opposition to both statehood and the move to provide the nation's capital with two senators and at least one House member stems from concern that the influence in the federal lawmaking process of the 50 states would be diluted. Opponents note that twice within the past decade Congress has provided Washington residents with greater governmental voice: first through provision of a nonvoting delegate to Congress and later by Voters, other groups, and individual citizens like Walter Fauntroy, the district's delegate granting a measure of home rule.

Common Cause, the League of Women to Congress, hold that the constitutional amendment granting the city full voting participation in the federal legislative process is "the logical next step."

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