Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Things are different inside the Beltway.
As Congress goes through the latest iteration of debate over Congressional representation for District of Columbia residents, I could argue the merits of various plans, from full statehood to retrocession. But I’d like to propose a slightly different outlook.

I lived in Texas and Arkansas until I was past thirty. I’ve lived in Northern Virginia, inside the Beltway, for almost twenty years now. I can assure you, things are indeed different inside the Beltway.

Washington’s proximity affects its suburbs. The Northern Virginia suburbs care little about what happens south of the Rappahannock; the rest of the Old Dominion returns the sentiments. Northern Virginia, year after year, sends more money and gets fewer services back from Richmond than other parts of the state.

In Texas, if you are interested in politics, you work in local campaigns. Maybe you run for city council or the legislature. After a term or two you move up to state senate or Congress, or maybe Governor. (Unless, of course, you’ve been managing the Texas Rangers.)

If you grow up in, or attend college in, or move to Arlington Virginia, and you’re interested in politics, you get a job on Capitol Hill. If you’re a policy wonk you work your way up through EPA or Justice. If you’re a smart lawyer with good connections you lobby on K Street. The best politicians in northern Virginia don’t go into local politics.

DC residents routinely complain, with good reason, that Congress interferes in what limited self government the District is allowed. But Congress interferes in suburban Virginia and Maryland government, too; usually with the approval of the local Congressional constituencies. It’s not just the amazing amounts of funding that local lawmakers direct to the DC suburbs; (my congressman, Jim Moran, was asked at a neighborhood forum in January about earmark reform. He responded that he was proud of the projects he brings to the 8th District.) Nor is it the support that local Congressmen give to their constituents, many of whom are government employees. (A top priority: make sure the District never institutes an income tax on commuters.) Again and again, local transportation and land use issues that anywhere else would be solved at a local or state level, here are decided in Congress.

I. Imagine you are a Civil War buff. A local developer is building a mall on private land adjacent to a nearby Civil War battlefield park. The County zoning board has approved the project, despite the protests of historic preservationists. What do you do?
Well, if the project is on the outskirts of Atlanta or Nashville you are probably out of luck. If it is 1988 and the project is William Center in Manassas Virginia, you mobilize preservation and conservation groups in Washington, 30 miles east. You marshal your supporters on Capitol Hill, organize a nationwide media campaign, and in a few months Congress buys the site for $134 million. The developer walks away a richer man; the County loses $23 million in annual tax revenues; local residents have 800 acres more open space, paid for by their fellow Americans, most of whom will never set foot on it.

II. In 1992, Virginia governor Doug Wilder and Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke announced plans for a new football stadium on an abandoned railroad yard in Alexandria. The deal had been arranged quietly by the Governor, with no local input. The response by local residents was quick.
“I work in the EPA. They will never get the permits to clean the site up.”
“I’m on (Tenth District Congressman) Tom Davis’s staff. We’ll kill this on the Hill.”

It took six weeks for Cooke and Wilder to abandon their plans.

III. Dulles Airport, 25 mile west, connects to DC by the Dulles Access Road. The road’s sole use is airport access; once you get on it, just inside the Beltway, you can’t exit until you reach the airport. In the late 80’s Congress allowed Virginia to build a toll road in the right of way, parallel but without connections to the access road, to serve the burgeoning suburbs. Several years later, as growing traffic clogged the toll road, the State proposed allowing carpools to use the access road. Congress vetoed the plan: increased traffic on the access road might reduce easy access to the airport. For some reason, Congress is less concerned with easy access between downtown LA and LAX.

Yes, things are different in DC. I’ve always believed the Constitution bars Congressional representation for DC, to prevent local residents from exerting undue influence on the Federal government. It makes sense, then, that the solution to DC voting rights is to give the residents of the DC suburbs the same rights as DC residents. Make Alexandria city and Fairfax, Arlington, Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties part of the Federal enclave.

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