Friday, April 20, 2001

Most people outside the Beltway don’t realize that their nation’s capital is in a constant state of rage that it isn’t, well, a state. Every few days, there’s some item in the local news about a protest, a speech, a demonstration, a baby banging a spoon on his highchair, whatever, that this teeny-tiny city of 570,000 residents doesn’t have two senators, just like 35 million Californians.

Out in America, normal people care about D.C. statehood about as much as they care whether Prague adopts draconian pooper-scooper laws.

Well, not exactly. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans do favor some form of D.C. statehood, anything from giving D.C. full representation in Congress to a formal constitutional amendment creating the 51st state.

But people tell pollsters what they think they are supposed to say. If you took a poll asking Americans if they supported laws protecting ugly children from excessive teasing, you might get a huge majority in favor. But that doesn’t mean much politically.

Similarly, a majority of Americans say they support “Democracy” for the District of Columbia, but I will eat my dog’s dinner if more than 0.01 percent of Americans living a few feet over the border would ever dream of writing a single letter in support of their “conviction,” let alone waste their votes on the issue.

Still, the politics of D.C. statehood are fascinating. The African-American base of the Democratic Party is gung-ho on the issue, largely because it would almost surely result in two black, hard-core Democratic Senators.

This analysis is what prompted Jesse Jackson, D.C.’s former “shadow senator,” to declare, some years ago, that D.C. statehood was “the most important civil rights issue facing America today,” which sounds to me like Exhibit A in the argument that America no longer has any important civil rights issues left.

Meanwhile, conservatives oppose D.C. statehood for two reasons. One faction emphasizes the partisan Republican considerations; they don’t want two permanent hyperliberal senators. The other faction points out that D.C. statehood is not only a bad idea, but it’s patently unconstitutional.

Conservatives who care about the plight of D.C.’s disenfranchisement - we meet every odd year in a phone booth - have long supported something called “retrocession,” which would allow Maryland to take back the land it donated for the Capital, hence turning “Washington, D.C.” into “Washington, MD.” (Virginia took back its land in 1846, which is why D.C. looks like a corner piece on a jigsaw puzzle.)

But there’s another option, which I’ve long supported, that’s gaining ground. Last month Sen. Joe Lieberman and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton proposed legislation to make the District of Columbia residents exempt from federal taxes.

This follows through on the remarkably successful campaign to change the motto on D.C.’s license plates to “Taxation Without Representation.” Bill Clinton even put the motto on the presidential limousine’s plates, moments before he left office. George W. Bush promptly removed them, along with the bumper sticker that read “If this Limo’s a-Rockin’ Don’t Come a-Knockin’.”

It’s doubtful that either Norton or Lieberman actually wants the legislation to pass, so much as to use it to shame Congress into supporting statehood. After all, Norton still wants to be a congresswoman or senator. And, not to cast doubt on the purity of Sen. Lieberman’s convictions, but the fact that he desperately needs to woo his party’s rank-and-file black voters if he’s going to win the Democratic nomination in 2004 might play a role.

But why not take the idea seriously? Conservatives have a lot more invested than liberals do in the idea that that high taxes are the root of, if not all evil, then a whole lot of evils.

According to every economic theory we hold dear, D.C. would become Monaco on the Potomac overnight; it would be the richest, most beautiful city in the world. Sure, D.C. residents wouldn’t be able to vote on omnibus spending bills and mohair subsidies, but then again taxpayers in Montana wouldn’t have to watch their hard-earned dollars pay for a subway system in faraway Washington, either.

More importantly, think of the symbolism. As the District became grander and grander, the benefits of low - or no - taxes would be hammered home. The District’s 25 million annual tourists would see a New Athens in the making, and they would take home the lesson that great things are possible when government gets out of the way.

Lieberman is stealing good conservative rhetoric when he hammers home that taxation and representation are two sides of the democratic coin. So, what better way for conservatives to put our money where our mouth is than to change the license plates to “Representation Without Taxation”?

You can write to Jonah Goldberg in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at

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