WILL ``New Columbia'' become America's 51st state? Jesse Jackson says the time has come for the nation's capital, which would be renamed New Columbia, to gain statehood, including full representation on Capitol Hill. If Congress and President Bush won't agree, the Rev. Mr. Jackson threatens an appeal to the United Nations to end ``tyranny'' over the federal city.
It might surprise people from other nations to learn that here at the heart of Western democracy, the 604,000 residents of Washington, D.C., cannot vote for either the House of Representatives or the Senate. It was only 29 years ago that this mostly black city won the right to vote in presidential elections.
With democracy movements sweeping Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union, the political consciousness of Washington citizens is being stirred. They call their city ``the last colony.'' If citizens of Budapest, Warsaw, and Moscow are winning the right to vote, they ask, why not Washington, which has more people than three states?
Jackson, who can always draw a crowd of TV cameras, has adopted statehood for the District of Columbia as his newest cause c'el`ebre. Calling it ``a question of simple democracy,'' the preacher-politician says it is time for D.C. voters to have two senators and at least one representative in the House, just like any state.
Even some conservatives who have strongly criticized D.C.'s city government, such as Rep. Stan Parris (R) of Virginia, now agree that the district should have a voice on Capitol Hill. Mr. Parris says it is unfair that district residents must pay federal taxes and serve in the military without full representation in Congress.
However, that is where the agreement ends.
President Bush declares flatly: ``This is a federal city and in my view should remain that.''
Parris would solve the problem by allowing D.C. residents to vote for Congress as if they were residents of neighboring Maryland. No new state. No new senators. District residents would share Maryland's two US senators, and be given representatives in the House in proportion to their population.
Jackson, who many suspect would like to be a US senator from New Columbia, denounces as ``half remedies'' anything that falls short of statehood. Merging Washington with Maryland for voting purposes would deny the capital an opportunity to ``solve our own problems,'' Jackson says.
Even in this pro-democracy age, statehood for the capital city will be a difficult goal, predicts R. Kent Weaver, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Furthermore, Mr. Weaver suggests that Jackson's threatened appeal to the UN could backfire.
``You don't make much progress by bashing Congress,'' he says. ``You just get them mad.''
Even so, Weaver says that D.C. residents are clearly being ill-served. ``They are being denied the right to vote, which is a basic American right,'' he observes.
In 1978, Congress tried to remedy the situation with a constitutional amendment that would have given the district two senators and a representative as if it were a state. However, only 17 states ratified the amendment out of the necessary 38, and the amendment died.
Today, several alternatives are under study, including:
Statehood. City Councilman James Nathenson says: ``Because this situation has been allowed to persist in a country that preaches self-determination, our citizens will now accept no other solution [for our] colonial status.''
Merger with Maryland. Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) of Maryland set off a flurry of speculation when he said he would ``have no problem with D.C. becoming a part of Maryland.'' Jackson retorted: ``Thanks, but no thanks.'' Jackson said that would be like turning D.C. into a ``bantustan,'' or black homeland, as in South Africa.
Partial merger. Parris suggests that the district vote with Maryland in federal elections. That would allow D.C. residents to cast ballots for two senators, as well as at least one representative. Jackson denounced the idea as ``colonialism.''
Limited representation. Weaver suggests a middle road: one senator for D.C., plus representation in the House depending on D.C.'s population. Weaver says that despite Jackson's crusade, ``I just don't see statehood happening.''
``Metro state.'' Some critics of D.C. statehood say the city fathers do not take the idea far enough. Their proposal: create a new state out of D.C., plus surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia. This new metropolitan state would currently have 3,734,200 people. It is rapidly growing, and would be fairly well balanced between racial groups and political persuasions.
Greater home rule. Congress supplies only 13 percent of D.C.'s budget, but can control how the entire city budget is spent. Federal officials clamped down, for example, on D.C. spending for abortions. One solution: home rule except where there is an overriding federal interest.
Law professor Philip Schrag of Georgetown University says this is a poor time to debate statehood because of the drug charges pending against Washington Mayor Marion Barry. ``If we had a new mayor and the district seemed to be solving its crime and economic problems, the country might take a different view of the statehood issue,'' the professor says.
But Judith Best, a political scientist at State University of New York at Cortland, favors merging the District of Columbia with Maryland.
``The district doesn't qualify on any pragmatic grounds to be a state. It's a company town. It's too small. It's not self-sufficient.''
Dr. Best, who wrote the book ``National Representation for the District of Columbia,'' says the underlying problem is that D.C. is a city, not a potential state. ``It's like making New York City a state.''
Charlene Drew Jarvis, a D.C. council member, says the biggest problems are political. Everyone knows that Washington would probably elect two new Democratic senators, and Republicans cannot accept that. The whole thing is ``real partisan,'' she says.
One in a series of weekly articles on life in the United States.