Commentary

An Alternative Political Future For the District

By William A. Niskanen
This article appeared on Examiner.com on July 5, 2007.

For some years now, District of Columbia officials have bemoaned our lack of full representation in the House of Representatives and used our license plates to advertise the status of District residents as subjects of “taxation without representation.”

A proposal to grant the District a full vote in the House has passed the House and the Senate government affairs committees, and a full Senate vote is scheduled for July. President Bush threatens to veto the measure if it passes. But the congressmen promoting it are overlooking a radical and vastly superior alternative: giving the bulk of the District back to Maryland, just as Congress returned Alexandria and Arlington to Virginia in 1846.

Mayor Adrian Fenty might not like it, but retrocession would be superior for most District residents on political, fiscal and economic grounds. Politically, District voters would get full representation in the House of Representatives, plus the opportunity to vote for the two senators from Maryland, the several senior state officials and the local legislators.

The effects of the change could be dramatic. The population of the District has declined about 27 percent since 1950 — a consequence of high taxes, lousy schools and high crime rates. A retrocession to Maryland and an increased prospect of better government could substantially reverse this decline.

The most likely new residents of Washington, Md., would be those who are now most deterred by the District’s high taxes and poor government services: wealthier individuals and families, those with school-age children, those who expect to leave estates and businesses — especially unincorporated businesses, restaurants and hotels.

Washington’s new residents would increase the political demands for better schools and lower crime, reducing the problems of the two major District services with the worst records. And these changes would further increase the value of residential and commercial property, increasing property tax revenues without increasing effective tax rates.

Retrocession would also lead to a division of government roles between the District and the state of Maryland. A division of roles similar to that now in Maryland would leave the new city of Washington, Md., with control of K-12 education, police, fire, corrections and streets; and most expenditures for parks and recreation, housing and waste disposal.

The Washington government would no longer bear the rapidly increasing costs of Medicaid, the responsibility for administering the University of the District of Columbia, and the special problems of providing long-term incarceration. Maryland would assume the responsibility for providing higher education, public welfare, health and hospitals, highways and prisons.

Washington, Md., would still be the national capital and would continue to receive substantial funding from the federal budget. Some regional organization could control land-use patterns consistent with the appearance and security of the major capital facilities, conditions characteristic of almost every other capital city in the world.

The fiscal effects would be dramatic, too. Almost all District taxes are substantially higher than the sum of Maryland state and local taxes — the only exception being D.C.’s property taxes, which are the lowest in the region.

As it turns out, neither Maryland voters nor their legislators would have to approve a retrocession. On its own authority, Congress could return most of the District to Maryland, other than a smaller area designated as the new “Seat of the Government of the United States,” as it did in returning Alexandria and Arlington to Virginia.

A constitutional amendment, however, may be required to void Amendment XXIII, which granted three electoral votes to the District whatever its population, but that could be managed.

Retrocession of the District to Maryland would obviously be a complicated matter, but it could yield substantial benefits for residents of both. With government services such as they are in the District, a single vote in a chamber of 435 federal legislators isn’t going to change much. D.C. needs a much bigger shot in the arm, and retrocession could be it.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute and was a former member and acting chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers.