April 21, 2005

D.C. Represents

by PG

Eugene Volokh was posting about D.C. statehood today. He doesn't think the Constitutionally-mandated unfairness of Washingtonians' lack of representation in Congress should be fixed by increasing the Constitutionally-mandated unfairness of giving each state two Senators regardless of the number of inhabitants. His preferred solution -- give D.C. residents a vote in Maryland's Senate races -- seems to have its own partisan bias. Why Maryland, eh? Why not have Washingtonians join the D.C. suburbanites to dilute the Republican majority of the rest of Virginia?

In fairness, though, Volokh's solution actually is the historically preferable one; D.C. residents voted in Maryland's congressional elections until 1800. (I know this random factoid from an old piece on D.C. statehood that I wrote for my undergrad paper; copied below the fold.)

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for Washingtonians to dissolve the Political Bands ...

Not being a Washingtonian -- except by sympathy and affection -- I don't have a right to declare the District's independence. But someone should. Surely Jefferson would do so, were he alive today. As he didn't write the Constitution, he hopefully would not be too invested in Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 which gives Congress the power "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding 10 miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States." Then again, despite his dislike of excessive federal power, Jefferson might consider having the nation's capital declaring itself a separate country somewhat immoderate. The current state of affairs, however, is not much less absurd.

Current residents of Washington share some of the grievances of Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries. Congress "has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only." And "imposing Taxes on us without our Consent" always brings out the mutiny in Americans, as demonstrated by the "No Taxation Without Representation" license plates on many D.C. vehicles.

Two main controversies surround the district's political status. One is that of representation: District residents pay federal taxes yet have no meaningful presence in Congress, which decides how those taxes will be spent. More than half a million people cannot vote for senators or a genuine representative. Their delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) can try to influence other members of Congress, but she cannot vote. Children in the District cannot become members of Congress unless they move to a state. The United States is the only democracy that denies representation in the elected legislature for the people living in the capital.

The other question is about home rule, or rather the lack thereof. With congressional oversight of the District, any decision the city government makes has to be reviewed -- and can be overturned -- by Congress. In the past, Congress has even overturned ballot initiatives passed by D.C. citizens. This is not the normal federalism, wherein state laws cede to federal law. The citizens of the District can't even decide what to name their local airport. If Congress wants to name it after a president who was unpopular in D.C., Congress may do so. Renaming National Airport for Ronald Reagan may seem to be a small matter, but it has symbolic significance for the residents of an area. As former chairman of the NAACP Julian Bond once said, "What would people in Omaha do if Congress just decided to name their airport 'Malcolm X International Airport'?"

Concerning Washingtonians' voting rights, the Constitution contains a seeming paradox. On one hand, the section giving Congress control of the District would impede home rule. On the other hand, the Fourteenth Amendment commands equal protection for all citizens. It is perhaps particularly relevant for Washington when considering the large number of African Americans -- many of whom are descendants of slaves once denied their civil rights -- living in the area. The Fourteenth Amendment would thus require that District residents have a voice in national government equal to those of their neighbors in Maryland and Virginia, even if Congress continues to oversee the city's government. This voice, after all, speaks not only about local issues, but national ones as well. The District has sent thousands of its residents to fight in America's battles, yet none of those servicemen and women had any part in the decision to go to war. The Capitol Hill police risk their lives to protect the members of Congress, without having elected them.

Several solutions to this injustice exist. Many suggest having D.C. residents vote in Maryland's congressional elections. Such was the system until 1800, and no major problems with it were reported. Indeed, had Alexandria not been retroceded to Virginia, its residents would be in the same state -- so to speak -- as Washingtonians. The District could become a state itself, as it is already treated by Congress for more than 500 purposes. If the Supreme Court continues to refuse to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment for the District, Washingtonians, just like women and minorities, may have to fight for their rights through the political process. DC Vote (www.dcvote.org) educates and acts to generate awareness and change.

Regardless of how enfranchisement happens, all Americans have an interest in seeing that it does. At the most basic level, one might consider the possibility of eventually having to live in Washington for career or family reasons, and having no one in Congress forced to listen to one's grievances. As of now, the rights of D.C. residents fall woefully short of the city's motto: Justitia omnibus.

April 21, 2005 10:13 PM | TrackBack

As an alternative to Maryland, why not provide District residents the opportunity to declare in a state of their choosing voting for members of Congress? All 50 states get benefits from the District in some form. Let the states compete to woo District residents. Now, what might Utah have to offer?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at April 22, 2005 07:29 AM

It was Arlington, not Alexandria that was retroceded.

The way to get Maryland and Virginia to fight to adopt D.C. is to first let D.C. collect a progressive wage tax. Then watch the fur fly.

Posted by: Marion Barry at April 22, 2005 09:59 AM

Mayor-Councilman Barry: Arlington and Alexandria were retroceded.

PG: Regarding your 14th Amendment analysis: Would Puerto Rico and other territories get voting representation in Congress as well?

Posted by: AGR at April 24, 2005 08:24 PM

I live in the Washington, DC and we started a blog to highlight that over 500,000 people living in our city do not have Congressional Representation on Capital Hill. We pay taxes, fight in the Armed Forces, and serve on Federal Grand juries. However, due to a historical anachronism in the Constitution, our elected representative has no vote in Congress.

We formed a group, The Stamp Act Congress to spread the word about this injustice. Our main protest is to stamp money with our slogan, "Stamp out Taxation without Representation in Washington DC!" Its been a lot of fun to do, and we hope that if enough Americans realized DC should have a vote in Congress, it will happen. Please contact me if you want to help. We need all the help we can get!

Keep on bloggin!

Stamp Act Congress

Posted by: Andy at May 2, 2005 10:54 PM


Puerto Ricans repeatedly have chosen to retain commonwealth status rather than becoming a state with the benefits and responsibilities thereof. PR has its own Senate and House of Representatives. And unlike D.C. residents, residents of the Commonwealth pay no federal income tax on locally generated earnings. I wouldn't have a problem with PR's being able to have voting representation in Congress, but so far that idea doesn't seem to have majority-level popularity among Puerto Ricans themselves.

Posted by: PG at June 15, 2005 11:41 PM

For the comments about Arlington. Arlington County was known as Alexandria County until 1920 and the county and city were one and the same.

Posted by: - at May 12, 2007 10:42 AM
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