Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Crack Pipe Prospects
By David G. Young
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 25, 2000 --
After years of having their voting rights snubbed by federal court rulings, congressional polls, and state legislatures, the government of Washington, D.C. has decided to play dirty. If Mayor Anthony Williams has his way, city residents will soon have the right to license their cars with plates carrying the slogan, "Washington, D.C. -- Taxation Without Representation."1
The problem, of course, is that as a special federal jurisdiction, residents of the District of Columbia don't enjoy the right to vote for full members of the United States Senate or the House of Representatives. Despite this lack of representation, residents suffer the full wrath of the Internal Revenue Service when it comes time to pay income taxes. It is only fair, as many see it, to make D.C. America's 51st state. DC's non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, regularly introduces legislation to convert the city of Washington into the State of New Columbia.
It certainly seems odd to want to make a full state out of a compact city that was once carved out of the State of Maryland. But much more is going on here. You don't have to be much of a cynic to see that many of those who say statehood is a good idea are being disingenuous. Given that the overwhelming majority of the voters in the District of Columbia are registered Democrats, granting statehood to the District would instantly award the Democratic party two new safe seats in the Senate as well as one in the House of Representatives. Thus, it's not surprising that the Democratic party platform explicitly calls for making D.C. a state, President Clinton and Vice President Gore support it, while the Republican party and Governor George W. Bush are opposed to it.2
Because of the partisan nature of this position, some more moderate voting rights advocates have suggested that the District of Columbia be returned to Maryland -- the state from which it was carved in 1800. This compromise proposal would grant full congressional representation to the citizens of Washington without creating a silly little city-state and a senatorial windfall for the Democratic Party.
However it is done, is it really a good idea to dissolve the federal district? Not on your life. The District of Columbia owes its very existence to the badness of this idea. Back in June of 1783, during a time when the capital was in Philadelphia, hundreds of Pennsylvania militiamen surrounded Congress when in session, demanding immediate payment for back wages from the American Revolution. Lacking local control over the area, Congressmen could do little more than huddle inside and pray for their lives. Although the conflict was eventually resolved peacefully, Congress was so shaken that it immediately fled Philadelphia. It didn't dare return to the official capital until years later -- long after voting to create the future federal territory of Columbia on the banks of the Potomac River starting in 1800.
While this lesson is particularly applicable to the early days of the American republic, it still has relevance today. There is always the prospect that a resurgent Governor Marion Barry, high from his latest hit on the crack pipe, would order the New Columbia National Guard to "peacefully demonstrate" around the U.S. Capitol until Congress agrees to increase the federal payment to New Columbia.
A more reasonable way to resolve the issue would be to decrease the size of the District so some of the more residential neighborhoods are returned to the state of Maryland, while retaining federal control over the core. There is already a precedent for this action -- the city of Alexandria was returned to Virginia by federal legislation in the mid-19th century. It's a simple compromise. But is it even necessary?
The reality is that citizens of D.C. are far from strangers to democracy. Now that the bad days of Mayor Barry and the resulting years of financial receivership are over, residents once again enjoy the right to vote for a powerful school board, city council, mayor, and president. And while their federal representation is limited, residents overwhelmingly support the Democrats -- the very political party that holds the presidency and nearly half the seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Even if D.C. were a state, its few representatives would be little different from others already present. Their addition would rarely ever make any difference in the outcome of federal legislation.
Because of this, the argument over congressional representation of D.C. citizens is little more than an academic idea. And if the academic idea of congressional representation is really that important to some citizens, then they always have the simple option of moving a short distance in any direction to live just over the D.C. line in a fully-represented suburban neighborhood. This is exactly what hundreds of thousands of other residents have done -- albeit for other reasons -- as D.C. lost nearly half its population since reaching its peak in 1950. (Of course many of the people like Mayor Williams who are active in the D.C. voting rights movement did the exact opposite -- they chose to move into the District with full knowledge of its lack of congressional representation.)
Although it is a simple solution, moving out of the District will pose another problem for voting rights activists. Once outside the city, they will be forced to give up their District plates -- and the Taxation Without Representation slogan that they so adore.
1. D.C. Government, Testimony by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, June 12, 2000
2. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Norton Releases Clinton Letter Supporting D.C. Voting Rights and Statehood, March 29, 2000