Taxation Without Representation

The title of this piece is the same as the motto that for years can be found on the license plates of vehicles registered in Washington D.C.  Most tourists, when they recognize it, are startled to see it and often ask about it, thus the reason for it being there in the first place.  The answer, however, while simple in response — “the District has no voting representatives in the Congress” — is far less simple in the context of the current political world.

To many D.C. residents, last Tuesday’s Democrat presidential primary in the District was symbolic of their plight in the modern United States.  While afforded the opportunity to vote for one of the nominees (Hillary Clinton won, while Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) won the Republican primary held in March), their votes were the last in the nation and of no significance since the nomination had already been decided.

It may be useful to put things in a quick historical context.  As we all learned in elementary school, Washington became the new capital city for the newly created United States.  Created by Congress through passage of the Residence Act in July 1790, the city’s location was the result of a compromise hammered out between Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.  The Constitution (Article I, Section 8) already provided for a federal district that was not a part of any state and that would be governed by the Congress.  Maryland and Virginia each donated land along the Potomac River that created a square-shaped jurisdiction and included the existing cities of Georgetown on the Maryland side, and Alexandria on the Virginia side.  In 1846 Congress returned Virginia’s donated land to the state (a complicated story in itself but it has to do with slaves as well as the city of Alexandria, and the fact that all federal buildings were constructed on the Maryland side) creating the current District’s size and shape.

For most of their history, D.C. residents had no say over how their city was governed.  The first significant change came in the early 1960’s with the ratification of the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution which gave the District three electoral college votes for president.  The votes are allocated according to population, but regardless, cannot exceed the number of votes allotted to the least populous state.

In 1973, Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act that allowed for the citizens of the city to elect a mayor and 13 Council members.  The first mayor was elected in 1975.

What is the significance of this brief history lesson?  Well, because of these cases and others, some legal scholars argue that, starting with the return of Virginia’s portion of the District, the Congress undid many elements of the original Constitution, thus setting a precedent that the District should be allowed home rule.

Here’s the real rub.  The District’s citizens resent that Congress over rides many of the laws that they pass within the Council or via referendum among the citizens.  Often, they are undone by conservative members of Congress that, according to many of the District’s citizens, use D.C. as a personal lab to push conservative causes that they cannot get done in their home state or in the Congress.  Additionally, when Congress is gridlocked, the District suffers because their budget, just like the Defense Department or the State Department is held hostage during the negotiations, making it difficult to run the city because even though they have the money (their own money, they argue) unless Congress authorizes them to spend it, they are not able to do so.

This is relevant today, as another major battle is brewing between the District’s government and Congress.  While D.C. supposedly has home rule, they must have their budget approved by Congress . This year the city government says that while they will submit it to Congress for review, they will not wait for approval and will spend the $13 billion dollars as they see fit. That budget breaks down to $4 billion in federal taxes and $7 billion in local property, sales, and other taxes.  (In the past, Congress would block spending on items or issues of which they did not approve. They also control all of the funds, including those through local taxes.) It is, as the Washington Post observed, essentially a Declaration of Independence by the city.  The Congress is not amused.  It may be a fight that D.C. cannot win, with threats of contempt of Congress and possible jail time for the mayor and Council.  Such activity directly in spite of Congress is deemed un-Constitutional.  In a vote in late May, the House voted to nullify the District’s voter approved measure to give themselves autonomy over their own city’s spending.

The real issue of course is whether or not Washington D.C. should become the fifty-first state.

Primarily, the desire of an increasing number of the city’s citizens is for autonomy in creating budgets and taking legislative actions, and gaining voting representation in Congress, just like the “other” states — 67% of voters in D.C. want statehood according to a poll last fall. (Currently the District has one representative or “delegate” in the House but that person cannot vote on legislation.)

The behind the scenes issue is that Washington D.C. voters are primarily Democrats and that giving the District two Senators and a member of Congress would add to the numbers of Democrats in those two legislative bodies.

As argued by the proponents of statehood, and delineated in the Post, Washington D.C. is not an economically backward city dependent on the federal government for its income.  For example:

  • The D.C. economy is bigger per capita than 16 states.
  • The D.C. budget is less reliant on federal funds than are those of 30 states.
  • D.C is actually a “donor state” along with states such as New York, Massachusetts, and California that pay more in federal taxes each year than the receive in services from the federal government.
  • D.C. has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming.
  • Large portions of the city pay no local taxes as they are federally owned (Capital, White House, monuments, etc.) or are owned by tax-exempt entities.
  • D.C. has its own National Guard unit and its citizens serve in the Armed Forces of the United States without a say in how such forces are used.
  • Most federal workers live in Maryland or Virginia, paying no taxes in D.C., while the city has to bear the expenses of providing services (police, fire, sewer, etc.) to those workers.

The list goes on and on.  Washington D.C. has its share of arguments as to why it should become the fifty-first state.  And yet, there is that pesky little document called the Constitution.

Personally, I do not think that Washington D.C. should become a state.  However, clearly a compromise of some sort that gives the citizens of D.C. some say in their own, and their nation’s affairs should be reachable.  Past efforts at compromise have failed, mainly for political reasons that have little to do with city politics or policies and more to do with wielding power in the Congress.

Other proposals include giving the land back to Maryland and thus D.C. would have two Senators (Maryland’s) and gain representation in the House based on population.  Unfortunately, Maryland does not want to regain the city and the District does not want to join Maryland.

My thought is that D.C. is on the right track.  Allow the city to manage its own fiscal and legislative affairs, just like any other governmental entity in our country.  Make the “delegate” a voting member of the House and add (or subtract) Representatives based on population and the current census used to draw up representation in the House.  No representation in the Senate.

The original creation of Washington D.C. was a compromise.  It seems that a reasonable compromise is attainable in the twenty-first century so that all of our nations’ citizens have some form of representation in designating how their tax dollars will work.

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