"Voteless in DC: Government Without the Consent of the Governed,"by John See & Amy Whitcomb Slemmer (July/August 2001) is an article about taxation without representation in Washington, DC.July/August 2001 issue of Poverty & Race
On March 3, 2000, Sarah Shapiro e-mailed a Washington, D.C. radio show to suggest that the District of Columbia change its license plate slogan to “Taxation Without Representation.” Ms. Shapiro didn’t expect much to come of her idea, so she was pleased when Mark Plotkin, the show’s co-host, mentioned her suggestion on the air. Plotkin also mentioned the slogan to Linda Cropp, a member of Washington’s City Council. She liked the idea and told other people about it. The idea caught on, and by November 2000 it had become reality: “Taxation Without Representation” is now the official license plate slogan in the District of Columbia.
One of the lessons of the “Taxation Without Representation” plates is that individuals can make a difference. In just eight months, one citizen’s idea spread through the airwaves, the City Council, and the mayor’s office, finally making its way onto cars throughout the city, a moving advertisement of injustice. But Ms. Shapiro also hopes that other Americans will absorb this civics lesson: that 570,000 residents of D.C. pay federal income taxes but do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress
Second-Class Citizenship in the Nation’s Capital
The District of Columbia’s lack of representation stems from the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “exercise exclusive legislation” over the seat of our federal government. Further complicating the issue, the District of Columbia is not a state and is not part of a state, so constitutional protections that apply to states don’t automatically apply to D.C. Nonetheless, Congress has imposed many of the federal requirements for states on the District.
In the early years of our nation, the District’s lack of representation was an anti-democratic oddity that didn’t apply to many people. In 1800, the population of the District was just 8,000, and the number of eligible voters – which excluded African Americans and women – was far smaller. As the 19th century progressed, the question of representation for the District’s residents was caught up in the issue of slavery. According to sociologist Mark David Richards, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on voting rights in the District, after the Civil War some members of Congress blocked the District’s right to full representation because they did not want to empower African Americans, who continue to be a majority of the District’s population.
From 1874 until well into the 20th century, the District was not allowed to elect its own local officials. In the 1960s, however, Congress began to yield a small amount of power to D.C. residents. In June 1960, Congress passed a Constitutional amendment giving District residents the right to send three voting representatives to the Electoral College. In 1961, three-quarters of the nation’s state legislatures ratified the amendment, and in 1964, D.C.’s residents voted for the first time in a presidential election. Then, in 1968, District residents were allowed to elect their own school board.
In 1974, after a difficult battle in Congress, home rule came to the District, giving D.C. residents the right to elect a mayor and a City Council. Still, Congress retained control of the city’s budget and reserved the right to overrule decisions made by the mayor and City Council. In addition, as Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood note in their book, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., the home rule legislation explicitly limited the District’s ability to govern itself. For example, the U.S. Justice Department would continue to hold prosecutorial power in the District. Also, the District was forbidden to impose a commuter tax, a practice used by many big cities to pay for services used by suburbanites who commute to work.
In 1978, an amendment to give D.C. residents the right to congressional representation passed both houses of Congress. However, it failed to be ratified by the required 38 states and in 1985 expired without becoming law. Since 1970, the District has had a nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives. Today, that delegate is Eleanor Holmes Norton, and despite her status as the only nonvoting representative of tax-paying constituents, she wields some influence in Congress. She introduces legislation, attends hearings, votes in committee, and speaks passionately on behalf of the District’s residents. But when the time comes to enact legislation, she has no opportunity to say “yea” or “nay.” During the 1993-94 session of Congress, she was allowed a symbolic vote in the Committee of the Whole, though she did not have the same voting privileges as the 435 full-fledged members of the House. Since 1995, however, when Republicans took control of the House, Delegate Norton, a Democrat, has had no vote whatsoever.
Also in 1995, Congress created a financial Control Board to oversee the District’s finances, since the District had not been able to meet the challenge of creating a balanced budget that could provide its residents with all the city and state services. In recent years, however, the District has balanced its books, and the control board appears to be ready to relinquish its power. But the end of the control board will not mean the end of federal intrusion.
Federal Interference in D.C.’s Local Issues
While the residents of D.C. have no say in Congress, Congress certainly has a say in D.C. Congress can overturn every rule, law or regulation passed by the City Council. D.C. collects approximately $5 billion annually in local tax revenues (plus $2.5 billion in federal taxes), but D.C.’s residents and elected officials are not allowed to determine how this locally collected revenue is spent. Several House and Senate committees must approve the District’s local budget, thus creating the opportunity for politicians from other parts of the country to score political points by attaching riders to the District’s local budget.
There is no special qualification for serving on the congressional committees that oversee the District. Some committee members are from the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs. While these politicians are aware of issues in the District, their constituents’ interests are sometimes in direct opposition to the interests of the District’s residents. For example, Maryland and Virginia’s congressional representatives have opposed tax reforms that would require those who benefit from the District’s services to pay for them. Other committee members are from Alaska or Hawaii, and their constituents’ interests are remote from those of District residents. Clearly, the person who best suited to represent the interests of the District of Columbia is someone from the District, elected by the District’s residents.
Many members of Congress repeatedly emphasize how important it is for the federal government to let local officials make decisions about local issues. For example, the web site of Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), who serves on the committee that reviews the District’s budget, notes that the Senator “has experienced how the heavy hand of the federal government can impede the efforts of States and communities to serve their citizens in the way they know is best.” Furthermore, he “knows that important education choices for our children need to be made at the direction of the people closest to our children – those at the state and local level.” Yet Senator Voinovich, who has spent most of his life in Ohio, has the power to tell District residents how to spend local tax revenues on schools, hospitals, social services or anything else.
Congress’ interference has ranged from matters of life and death to the most trivial aspects of local government. For the 2000 fiscal year budget alone, members attached more than 60 riders, including restricting funds for
• providing legal abortions;
• providing health care benefits for cohabitating couples;
• petitioning Congress for full voting representation, and
• implementing a needle exchange program.
In the past, members of Congress from Alabama and Texas have sought to force the District to adopt the death penalty, even though polls and City Council votes have indicated that most District residents are opposed to it.
On July 26, 2000, several D.C. residents protested the budget riders and the appropriations process by disrupting a congressional hearing on the D.C. budget. The protestors, who became known as the D.C. Democracy Seven, were arrested, tried and found not guilty.
Why the Problem Hasn’t Already Been Resolved
Sociologist Richards identifies four broad reasons for the District’s continuing disenfranchisement. First, it’s likely that the District of Columbia would have full representation in Congress if a majority of residents were rich and white. But more than two-thirds of D.C.’s 570,000 residents are people of color, and nearly one in five live below the poverty line. Thus, politicians who evoke racist stereotypes and who make decisions based on campaign donations have opposed the expansion of civil rights for D.C.’s residents.
The second obstacle is Americans’ perception of the District of Columbia. Richards notes that D.C. has a “double identity” – as the center of political power and as a city so poorly run that it doesn’t deserve to have power. But the notion that communities must earn the right to representation does not apply across America. Few would argue that Florida should not be represented in Congress because the state found it difficult to count votes or that Californians should lose their representation in Congress because the state is having trouble managing its energy needs.
The third factor that prevents Washingtonians from achieving full-fledged citizenship is that other Americans, those whose representatives in Congress have real power, don’t know about D.C.’s unequal standing. According to Richards, who has conducted polls to measure Americans’ knowledge of D.C.’s voting rights, “56% of college graduates registered to vote . . . were not aware that DC does not have equal voting rights in the Senate and the House.” If Americans aren’t aware of the problem, Washingtonians can’t expect them to help solve it.
The fourth reason for D.C.’s continuing second-class status is perhaps the one that will prove most difficult to overcome. The District’s residents do not agree on the solution to the problem. Possible solutions include statehood, retrocession (because part of D.C. was carved out of Maryland more than 200 years ago, the District’s residents would be allowed to vote in Maryland’s elections), and constitutional amendments or new laws that would guarantee D.C. residents the same voting rights or constitutional rights as residents of other states. Until the residents of D.C. can agree on a solution, it is unlikely that Congress will agree on a solution.
Recent Attempts to Raise Awareness
Delegate Norton and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) have introduced a bill that would eliminate federal income tax for D.C. residents. The per capita federal tax burden for the D.C. residents is second only to Connecticut’s. Residents of 49 states pay less per capita than the citizens of Washington pay, yet they enjoy full representation in Congress. Wyoming, for example, despite having a population that is smaller than the District’s and paying less per capita in federal income taxes, has one voting member in the House and two voting members in the Senate.
Some D.C. residents, no doubt, would be pleased to see the “No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2001” become law, but others see it as a stopgap measure at best. If it were enacted, District residents would achieve parity with residents of Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories who also have only a nonvoting member of Congress. But early Americans died for the right to representation, and it seems foolish to consider trading it away.
The power shift in Congress caused by Vermont Senator James Jeffords’ departure from the Republican Party may also help raise awareness about D.C.’s lack of voting representation. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the new Majority Leader, has said that he favors Senate hearings on the subject of full representation for the District of Columbia.
D.C. residents have used many strategies to call attention to Congress’ continuing practice of denying residents the right to self-rule. Having won the right to vote for president, D.C. sends three electors to the Electoral College. (So, while there are 535 members of Congress, there are 538 electors in the Electoral College.) Barbara Lett-Simmons, one of D.C.’s electors for 2000, believes that taxation without representation is tyranny. So she chose to protest the District’s lack of congressional representation by withholding her vote. Her decision did not affect the outcome, but it did draw media attention to D.C.’s lack of representation.
Residents of D.C. also have gone to court over the voting rights issue, but in the most recent lawsuit, eight of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled that the District was not entitled to voting representation in the House of Representatives. Professor Jamin Raskin of American University Law School in Washington, D.C. believes that the Court has not been consistent in its rulings: “The Supreme Court rejected an Equal Protection attack on complete disenfranchisement of more than a half-million American citizens in D.C. two months before it decided that pregnant chads have Equal Protection rights in Bush v. Gore.” According to Raskin, the District’s best strategies for gaining full voting rights are statehood or a constitutional amendment guaranteeing congressional representation for all Americans.
People who live outside the District of Columbia have also found a way to support voting rights in D.C. The city councils of Chicago and Philadelphia have passed resolutions in favor of full congressional representation for D.C., and other cities are expected to follow suit.
Putting an End to Taxation Without Representation
Sarah Shapiro’s idea for a license plate slogan went further than she thought it would, but it hasn’t gone far enough. The real victory will come when D.C. residents remove the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates because they have achieved all the privileges of being American citizens. To do so, D.C. residents will have to come together and take their case to the American people. But D.C. can’t do it alone.
Powerful and compassionate whites worked with African Americans to ensure that they earned the right to vote. Men helped women earn the right to vote. In the same way, D.C. residents will need the rest of Americans, those who have all the privileges of full citizenship, to recognize that this issue is a fundamental civil right. Second-class citizenship in the District of Columbia is an ugly flaw at the heart of our democracy. America has the power – and the obligation – to mend it.
John See is a former speechwriter for Education Secretary Richard Riley firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is the executive director of DC Vote, 1500 U St. NW, Wash., DC 20009, 202/462-6000, an organization working to obtain full voting representation in the U.S. Congress for District of Columbia residents. email@example.com
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