Washington, govern thyself

Posted on July 1, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Another national anniversary shares the month of July, though it rarely gets any observance.

Fourteen years and a dozen days after the Declaration of Independence was approved, President Washington signed the Residence Act into law on July 16, 1790.

This legislation designated the seat of the U.S. government on a site along the Potomac River, which is now known as the District of Columbia.

Choosing a location for the federal city was one of the first controversies—and compromises—of the First Congress. Ultimately, Thomas Jefferson brokered a compromise over dinner with his fellow cabinet member, New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, and fellow Virginian and future president James Madison.

Hamilton supported the Assumption Bill, which would permit the fledgling federal government to assume Revolutionary War debts from the states. Madison and other Southerners supported the idea of the nation’s capital, which the Constitution authorized, being located in a Southern state.

In vintage political fashion, each side agreed to support the other’s position, and the “Territory of Columbia” was born, with the federal city itself named for George Washington.

From the first time French architect Pierre L’Enfant surveyed the rural patch of riverfront property, he imagined a metropolis rising from the modest meadows that would echo the grandeur of European cities but express the democratic ideals of America.

The centerpiece of his design was a great “public walk” (the National Mall), and he reserved the pinnacle point not for the presidential palace, as was traditional, but for the people’s Capitol.

L’Enfant designed public squares and parks at the intersections where the wide diagonal boulevards crossed the streets of the city’s grid system. He sought to create not only efficient transportation routes, but also inspiring views of the city’s important buildings along the way.

If any city ever had a birthright to become the premier American example, it is Washington, D.C. It is the only city under direct congressional authority and subject to direct federal control. The U.S. government may lament the states’ unwillingness to embrace federal initiatives, but no such limitation exists in Washington.

Theoretically, the federal wisdom that is received or rejected in varying degrees among the states should proceed with full vigor in the nation’s capital. It ought to be a living laboratory of justification for every federal program—a beacon of evidence to the rest of the country of what will work if the obstacles of state politics are removed.

Ideally, Washington should be the crowning achievement of all that’s right in federal governance. In an accountable world, Washington would be the beta site for ideas, prior to implementation across the nation at large.

If an idea for education doesn’t work in D.C. schools, for example, why should any state assume the result would be different on its campuses? If a new crime policy fails in Washington, why should other cities assume it would succeed in their neighborhoods?

The troubling reality is that, after two centuries, Washington is hardly the epitome of any governmental success. In areas critical to quality of life, the federal city is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Education is an enigmatic mess in Washington. By all accepted indicators, Washington’s public schools should be national leaders. Per pupil spending is among the highest in the nation. Most kids (67 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds) go to preschool.

Nearly half of the D.C. population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher,suggesting a parental appreciation for the value of education. Personal per-capita income in D.C. is off the charts, outpacing the top state (Connecticut) in inflation-adjusted dollars by more than 20 percent.

In short, it’s a veritable garden of fertility for creating an A+ school system.

Instead, D.C. public schools got an overall grade of D+ from Education Week in its Quality Counts program (Arkansas got a B-, for comparison). Only 14 percent of 4th grade students and eight percent of 8th grade students scored “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

When Forbes calculated its “Best and Worst Schools for the Buck,” Washington landed second from the bottom. Its high school graduation rate is ten points below the national average.

Crime in our federal city is a national embarrassment. Among cities over 500,000 in population, Washington ranks 4th on the Morgan Quitno Most Dangerous Cities list. The murder rate in the nation’s capital is an astounding five times the U.S. average, as is the robbery rate. Overall, violent crime in D.C. exceeds the national rate by 300 percent.

Few of the worn-out excuses for crime apply in Washington. Family incomes are higher than average, and unemployment is low. Most residents are college-educated, and local citizens pay the highest per capita property taxes in the nation. Washington has enacted the most restrictive gun control laws in the country, and D.C. has more police officers per square mile than every major city except New York.

So many in Washington pompously seek to improve the states (and even the world), but as the nation celebrates its 235th birthday it’s time for a joint resolution to start with their own back yard.

My Fourth of July suggestion: Federal city, heal thyself.

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