Frank A. DeFilippo: What to do About D.C.? Leave Md. Alone

District of Columbia government photo.

The District of Columbia is an orphan. Nobody claims ownership. It’s not part of Maryland. It doesn’t belong to Virginia. The District is a company town.

Wilmington, Del., manufactures chemicals. Detroit makes cars. The District’s only product is itself. It floats on its own gases.

The best jobs on earth are the District’s shadow senator and shadow representative, not to be confused with non-voting representative. They are titular only. They do nothing. Their singular mission is to gain voting rights in Congress. That’ll give them something to do.

Lately there have been other among many suggestions to do something about, or with, the District – award it statehood, make it a county, give it back to Maryland, force it on Virginia, shower it with Michelin stars and crown it the restaurant capital of the western world – something, anything.

A recent Washington Post poll showed that a majority of Marylanders favor statehood for the District but resist absorbing it as a county. The rest of the country disagrees. A Gallup poll revealed that a substantial majority of Americans oppose awarding statehood to DeeCee. The District, like Maryland, is overwhelmingly Democratic, islands of blue in a backwash of red.

When Maryland donated land to create the federal enclave known as the District of Columbia in 1788, the munificent gesture did not include an agreement to accept it back. Now, 231 years later, frustrated by the District’s lack of voting rights as a federal territory and not a state, there are several proposals to incorporate DeeCee into Maryland’s electoral system to share the vote and presumably the problems and, maybe even the wealth.

The Commonwealth of Virginia acted first. It reclaimed the land it ceded for the nation’s capital along the banks of the Potomac River back in 1846. It is called “retrocession.”

Frank!
Frank A. DeFilippo

Much of the agitation for awarding the District full citizenship status occurs around the approach to census time and its bodysnatching companion, congressional redistricting. It is usually straight-faced serious business, with no evidence of sarcasm, tongue-in-check, parody, chain-yanking or other literary tropes.

So here we go again. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting representative, has a bill, as she always does, to create the “State of Washington.” David Krucoff, a real estate executive who’s challenging Norton for the right to not-vote, is offering a competing plan – “Douglass County,” Maryland, named for the abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. (Unrelated fact: A direct descendent of Douglass, John W. Douglass, represented Baltimore in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1971-1994.)

DeeCee complains that its residents pay billions in taxes and in return get no respect. “Taxation Without Representation” has been the District’s banshee cry on its license plates since 2000 (it worked once before), a census year. And it was a decade later, around census and redistricting time, that the previous two serious proposals were made.

One was by Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Gans spent nearly a half century fighting for the democratization of the District. He dismissed statehood and concluded that the only chance the District had of actually gaining full voting rights and representation would be through superimposing the nation’s capital onto Maryland.

Shortly before that, when Democrats were in full control of the federal government, during the quietly cerebral Obama early years, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), then House majority leader, as he is once again, hatched an ambitious plan to give the District a voting member of Congress.

Hoyer proposed expanding the size of the House of Representatives to 437 members from its current 435 seats. His plan would have given the heavily Democratic District one voting member and awarded Republican-leaning Utah a second seat as an attempt to broker bipartisan support.

But Republican amendments to the bill would have stripped the District of its right to regulate firearms – which it later partially lost in the courts – and Hoyer withdrew the bill.

A backward look reveals that in 1973, the District of Columbia adopted its Home Rule Act, which gave DeeCee more control over its affairs, including, for the first time, the direct election of its mayor and City Council. Up until that time, the District’s mayor was appointed by the president of the United States.

As a point of historical fact, in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson offered the appointment to Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin Jr., of Baltimore, as a reward for McKeldin’s break from the Republican Party to endorse and support Johnson, a Democrat, over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in that year’s presidential election. McKeldin declined, telling Johnson that “the job should go to a black.” It did. Johnson appointed Walter Washington.

The 23rd Amendment, adopted in 1961, awarded the District representation in the Electoral College. Other than that solitary function, the District’s non-voting representative, Norton, has little else to do. The District’s two shadow senators, first elected in 1990, are Paul Strauss and Michael D. Brown, and its shadow representative is Franklin Garcia. Politics for the symbol-minded.

One of the major arguments for annexing the District onto Maryland is that DeeCee would gain a voting member of the House of Representatives and Maryland would gain a ninth member of Congress. District residents would also be allowed to vote for Maryland’s two senators.

In effect, the District would become another major city in Maryland, about the size of Baltimore, but would be self-governing and self-sufficient. Put aside, for this rumble, the intricacies of taxation and bureaucratic structure. It looks plausible only from the Google Earth satellite.

(The memberships of the House and Senate are fixed in the Constitution at 435 and 100. Any change in the numbers would require ratification by three-quarters of the states, which is unlikely. Representatives are awarded based on population and by shifting the fixed number, 435, among gainers and losers. Based on population projections, Maryland likely will not gain an additional member of Congress following the 2020 census, as it did gain the eighth member following the 1960 census.)

All of this happy talk might sound convincing in a basic political science class. But attaching the District to Maryland raises serious questions about which would get the better end of the deal and which would inherit the sticky end of the lollipop.

Would DeeCee no longer have to pay for and support administrative functions such as issuing drivers’ licenses and tags, certain tax collecting duties and presumably regulatory and environmental responsibilities? DeeCee gun laws have been upended by Congress and the courts. Maryland’s strict laws are intact. DeeCee has cheap wine, liquor and cigarettes. It costs serious money to drink and smoke in Maryland.

DeeCee once threatened to impose a commuter tax on Maryland residents. Maryland went nuts and threatened to retaliate. The federal presence in DeeCee is all tax-free property. By comparison, Baltimore has double the property tax rate of any jurisdiction in the state. And finally, the District is under the thumb of congressional committees. How would that play out in Annapolis?

And here’s the biggest “if” of all – congressional redistricting. Every 10 years, as will occur in Maryland, as scheduled, sometime before early in 2022, legislatures get to re-shape congressional districts, in Maryland’s case eight.

With the District kind of an independent little duchy, would it remain sacrosanct and untouchable, guaranteed its own compact district forever, while the rest of Maryland would have to undergo the legalized bodysnatching that takes place once a decade when the maps are re-drawn and the real estate is realigned?

It is doubtful that the District can pass the penultimate test for admission to Maryland. No, knife and fork are not the appropriate tools for dismembering a crab. A wooden mallet and Old Bay-smeared fingers are. And no, jumbo lump crab meat is not the essential ingredient for an authentic Baltimore crab cake. Humble claw meat is.

How about we leave Maryland the way it is, just as God intended.


Ooops! The name of Thiru Vignarajah was inadvertently missing from among more than a dozen candidates in last week’s column on Baltimore’s contest for mayor. Vignarajah should have been listed among the top tier of candidates because of his record and wide recognition – as former deputy attorney general, assistant U.S. attorney, chief of the criminal division in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office and as a candidate for state’s attorney in 2018. – FAD