Self-Government for the District

TAXATION with representation and the right of local self-government are among the oldest American democratic traditions. The only place in the continental US these rights are waived is the District of Columbia. With 604,000 residents, D.C. has more people than Vermont, Alaska, and Wyoming. Yet the District has only one nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, and no senator. Shouldn't its citizens, as taxpayers and prospective military draftees, be given a voice and a vote?

Welcome to the latest round of the D.C. statehood fight.

Calls to make the District a state have come steadily since the mid-1970s. (It's only been since 1975 that D.C. residents have had ``home rule.'') Today, Jesse Jackson, who moved to the capital last summer as a prospective challenger to Mayor Marion Barry, has given the controversial issue new visibility. Mr. Jackson's rhetoric has been hot: Washington, with its large black population, is treated as a federal ``plantation,'' a ``third-world colony.'' Jackson criticizes President Bush, who opposes D.C. statehood, for viewing ``Washington as a parasite rather than a host.''

He overstates the case. Jackson's rhetoric and tactics tend to be inflammatory and may backfire with Congress, which must vote on the issue. Also, Jackson's new concern over the plight of Washington dovetails a little too nicely with the likelihood he would be the new state's leading senatorial candidate.

The cause, however, is just. Some formulation is needed to provide D.C. not only with representation in both houses of Congress, but also an end to the day-to-day administrative oversight by Congress. More than 80 percent of the D.C. budget is derived from local revenue. The city deserves more self-government.

At the same time, the special federal nature of Washington D.C. should be retained. The city has a unique origin and role. Negotiations by foreign countries for embassy land and rights, for example, must take place with the federal government. Police and security protection for federal officials and buildings needs federal oversight.

Washingtonians ought to be given a referendum on various options short of statehood. Statehood isn't politically realistic. Perhaps D.C. should have one senator, for example, and House members commensurate with its population, as well as a more autonomous city council.

Political discussion of the issue tends to emphasize the ``four toos'' - that Washington is too black, too urban, too liberal, and too Democratic. That's unfair. So is rhetoric that seeks to change the situation by antagonizing.

Whatever the outcome, D.C. needs more appreciation. Its schools and institutions have been ill-served by the current system of governance, as well as by the instability of the current mayor. But support, not disdain, is needed from those who work in and around the nation's capital.

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