Washington, D.C. (Democracy Curtailed)

For over two centuries now, something has been very wrong in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’. Around 600,000 residents of Washington D.C. and the surrounding District of Columbia, home of the nation’s capital, have been overlooked in America’s political system.

Washington D. C. is not like other capitals. Whereas the title is usually bestowed upon an existing city, Washington and the District of Columbia were purposefully constructed from land granted by the state of Maryland to be the permanent centre for America’s national Government. Under the constitution, this allows the federal Government to provide for its own maintenance and security without having to rely on individual states. At a local level, it is governed by an elected mayor and city council, but unlike America’s 50 states, DC – being only a “District” – has next to no representation in Government, with no Senators, no Congressmen, and only a “Congressional Delegate” who cannot even vote on legislation.

Yet, despite being the most disenfranchised citizens in the continental United States, Washingtonians still pay some of the highest taxes in the country. In 2007 alone, residents and businesses paid £20.4 billion in federal taxes, more than that levied from 19 other states collectively the same year. To raise awareness of this reality unknown to most Americans, local advocacy group DC Vote successfully pushed in 2000 for “Taxation Without Representation” to be added to DC license plates, a play on the Revolutionary slogan. This measure was praised by then-President Bill Clinton who even added the slogan to the Presidential car number plate. Apart from this political display, however, Clinton and subsequent Presidents have done little to decisively resolve the issue – indeed, George W. Bush would later have the slogan removed from the Presidential car.

Since Congress holds ultimate control over the city’s budget, the question of DC’s lack of autonomy and representation comes to a head every year as local and national politicians clash over appropriations. Most recently in 2011, Congress prohibited the District from using its own funds to run a health program to help poor women pay for abortions, one of several moves that later prompted the city’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to tell Congress to “go straight to hell!”

But not all members of Congress are deaf to DC’s calls. In 2009, the Senate passed the DC Voting Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation that could secure the city full voting representation. To the dismay of campaigners, however, the bill has been shelved indefinitely after a last-minute amendment regarding gun ownership was added. Other measures to solve Washington’s predicament have also been suggested in recent years. Californian Representative Dan Lungren in 2010 proposed returning most of the city to the state of Maryland. Local campaigners  have also called for the District to be granted full statehood. The problem with these proposals is that they would violate the Constitution’s ‘District Clause’. As a solution, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, whilst not advocating full representation for citizens in DC, has put forward a constitutional amendment (still being reviewed by the Senate), which would at least secure one voting Congressman for them.

With such a fundamental constitutional question at stake, a solution to such a staggering hypocrisy at the heart of American Government will not be easy. And in the face of mounting partisan politics as Americans go to the ballots for the coming presidential election, it is unlikely that it will be resolved anytime soon. Whatever the solution may be, without proper representation in Government, one thing is certain: Washingtonians will have no say in it.

Joshua Cheetham

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  • Washington, DC (Democracy Curtailed) – Impact |
    17 June 2012 at 10:48
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