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"Will Democracy Ever Come to D.C.?"

July/August 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

The July/August 2001 issue of P&R had as the lead article, "Voteless in DC: Government Without Consent of the Governed," by John See & Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, describing the various ways in which the nearly 600,000 residents of the nation's capital are second-class citizens: no voting representation in Congress (despite the fact that our city has more people than Wyoming, suffered more casualties during the Vietnam War than 10 states, etc.), extraordinary and outrageous federal interference in local issues, etc. (We'll be happy to send or email a copy of the article, which provides useful history and context around this issue.)

Various remedial paths are advocated by different groups: statehood; retrocession (incorporating DC into Maryland or -- less likely -- Virginia, from which states the District was originally carved; amending the Constitution or passing legislation (the lawyers are not of one mind as to how this might happen) to permit DC to have two Senators and a voting representative in the House

Sources of resistance to most of these plans are obvious -- mainly the political/racial fact that DC would add three liberal Democratic, and likely black, members to the Senate and House.

If change is ever to occur, it will require awareness and pressure from the rest of the country. A surprisingly large proportion of Americans (56%, according to a reported in sociologist Mark David Richard's dissertation) are unaware of the lack of democracy right here in what our leaders like to boast is the world's leading democracy (no other federal capital city in the world deprives its residents of full voting rights). But a 1999 national poll found that 72% of Americans believe DC residents should enjoy equal constitutional rights. How to get the word out, and then mobilize political support around the country, is the key question.

Below are some recent developments in the fight for democracy in DC:
  • A "No Taxation Without Representation Act" has been introduced by DC's (non-voting) Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton -- H.R. 1993 -- and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) -- S. 603. Playing off the mantra of the American Revolution ("Taxation Without Representation" is now the motto on DC's license plates), the bill points to the fact that, on a per capita basis, DC residents pay more in federal taxes than 49 states, and essentially asks that DC residents be exempt from federal taxes if they can't get the vote in Congress, which passes tax laws. Needless to say, it does not stand any chance of passagen its original form, but has done a lot to focus attention on the issue; Norton has just asked Lieberman to revise the bill to eliminate the tax provision so it stands purely as a voting rights bill, the original intent.

  • May 15 was "Lobby Day," with advocates visiting all 100 Senate offices. Among the organizational supporters are The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, NAACP, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

  • On May 23, a hearing on the "No Taxation Without Representation Act" was held before the Senate Government Affairs Committee (chaired by Sen. Lieberman).
  • On April 15, several hundred people gathered at Farragut Sq. in downtown DC to symbolically burn their 1040 tax forms.

  • In mid-April, Tom Cooper, a voting rights advocate, testified before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, regarding the lack of basic democratic rights here, claiming a violation of an international convention the US signed in 1994; similar future petitions are planned before the Organization of America States. The aim is to internationalize the issue, creating the kind of embarrassment and pressure that forced the federal government to act to oppose racial discrimination in the 50s and 60s.

  • A crusade, led by a leading radio commentator, Mark Plotkin, is under way (now in the form of legislation) to add to the Statuary Hall in the Capitol (where each state has two statues) two leading DC figures. Don't expect quick action on that one either.

  • The Cleveland City Council became the latest legislative body to pass a resolution favoring full voting rights for DC citizens -- adding their weight to similar actions by the city councils of Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Francisco; Los Angeles and the Illinois state legislature are moving to do this as well.

  • Some DC voters -- part of a formation known as DC Rabble -- are boycotting federal jury service in protest.
  • A recent example of federal interference in local issues got a lot of press attention: Dunbar High School teacher Tom Briggs ran (unsuccessfully) for DC City Council in 2000 on the DC Statehood Green Party ticket. The federal Hatch Act, which bars federal workers from participating in partisan political activity, unaccountably regards DC school teachers as federal employees (no other school teachers in the US are barred from partisan political activity). The US Office of Special Counsel brought action against Briggs and a few months ago ordered the DC school district to fire him, which they did (before the school year ended). Congresswoman Norton (who is allowed to introduce bills -- she just can't vote on them) has introduced legislation exempting DC teachers from the Hatch Act. The school district has rehired Briggs -- saying that, having fired him, rehiring is within the law -- but the ever vigilant federal Office of Special Counsel announced it will review the action.

  • Congresswoman Norton persuaded the US Postal Service to include DC in its 50-state commemorative stamp program; she also introduced legislation (passed in the House in the 106th Congress) to create a quarter coin for DC, in the same way such coins are being created for each of the 50 states.

  • In June, the City Council held a hearing on a resolution altering the DC flag to add "Taxation Without Representation" to the design -- it is scheduled for an early July vote.

  • Another Norton bill (The Legislative Autonomy Act of 2002) seeks to eliminate Congressional review/power over civil and criminal legislation passed by the DC City Council. Past outrageous interference by Congress in local affairs include forbidding the District to count votes on a medical marijuana initiative; restricting funds to provide health care benefits for cohabiting couples; barring implementation of a needle exchange program; requiring the Metro system to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to change signage and maps throughout the system to read "Ronald Reagan National Airport" rather than "National Airport"; and, most recently, attempts (this by Attorney General John Ashcroft) to undermine the District's strict anti-gun laws.

So -- what you can (should) do:

Get your local government to pass a resolution supporting DC voting rights or statehood.


Contact:

DC Vote, 1500 U St. NW, Wash., DC 20009, 202/462-6000, dcvote@dcvote.org.

The DC Statehood Green Party, 1314 18th St. NW, Wash., DC 20036, 202/296-1301, www.dcstatehoodgreen.org.

n.b.: Be aware that there are significant differences between the two approaches. The statehood advocates regard voting rights as too limited an objective, that having 3 DC voting members in Congress would not necessarily end Congress' rule over the city, that self-government should be the goal.

Notes:

Thanks to Jamal Najjab of DC Vote for assistance in preparing this report.

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