Why DC Voting Rights Matter
What’s the only democracy in the entire world where the residents of the capital have No Vote in Congress? Of all the capitals in all the world’s democracies, only Washington, D.C., doesn't have voting representation or real home rule.
"Taxation without representation" ...It’s Still a Fact of Life in Washington, D.C.
Most Americans take it for granted that they have representatives in Congress who speak out and stand up for their interests and values.
But residents of our nation’s capital - Washington, D.C. - still don't have this basic democratic right. The District’s only voice in Congress is a non-voting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who serves in the House of Representatives but is not permitted to vote on the floor of Congress.
Despite the federal taxes they pay, the wars they fight in, and the other obligations of citizenship that they perform, residents of Washington, D.C. simply do not have the basic American right of voting representation in Congress.
Why are the residents of our nation’s capital denied voting representation in Congress and the same measure of home rule as other Americans? This denial of basic democratic rights began because, instead of being part of a state, Washington, D.C. was a federal district - the District of Columbia (the "D.C." in Washington, D.C.). And, for the past half century or more, African Americans have made up a majority of the residents of Washington, D.C., which may have prompted some of the opposition to providing the nation’s capital with voting representatives in the U.S. Congress.
A Shameful History: Two Centuries of Disenfranchisement
For more than 200 years, the residents of our nation’s capital have been denied voting representation in Congress. Our nation’s founders had a better idea. From the incorporation of Washington, D.C., in 1791 until 1801 when Congress passed the "Organic Acts" to govern the federal district, the capital’s residents were represented in Congress by people they voted for in Maryland or Virginia. But the "Organic Acts" took congressional representation away from the residents of the District of Columbia.
Since 1801, there have been many efforts to restore D.C. residents’ right to voting representation. While D.C. residents were granted the right to vote for president in 1961, the right to voting representation in Congress has remained out of reach. In 1978, Congress passed a constitutional amendment to give D.C. full voting representation, but it was not ratified by the states.
Thus, residents of the nation’s capital have not had a vote on historic decisions by Congress, such as every war that the nation has fought, including the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In fact, D.C. residents have not had a say on issues involving their own city, including the abolition of slavery in the nation’s capital in 1862 and the establishment of the Home Rule Charter in 1973.
Disenfranchising Washington, D.C. Flies in the Face of the Facts:
While Washington, D.C. does not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress, the nation’s capital has a larger economy, pays more federal taxes, and has lost more servicemen and women in our nation’s wars than many states that do have representation.
Here are the facts:
Fact: Washington, D.C., has approximately 600,000 residents - more than the approximately 500,000 residents of Wyoming.
Fact: Twenty states have lost fewer residents in our nation’s wars than Washington, D.C.’s families have lost.
Fact: Washington, D.C., residents pay $1.6 billion a year in federal taxes - more per person than the residents of every state.
Fact: Washington, D.C.’s economy is larger than the economies of 14 states.
Fact: Congress treats Washington, D.C., as a state for the purposes of 500 of the nation’s laws.
Limited Self-government in Our Democracy’s Capital
Because Washington, D.C. is a federal district under Congress’ authority, residents of our nation’s capital enjoy less self-government than the people of any other major American city.
Under a limited form of "home rule," Congress can overturn all the laws passed by Washington’s elected city council, all the actions of its elected mayor, and even all the interpretations of its laws by D.C. judges. In most cities, the basic law establishing their municipal government is a city charter, which was written by the people’s elected representatives. But in Washington, D.C., the charter was enacted by Congress and can't even be amended without Congress’ approval. Similarly, Congress must approve Washington, D.C.’s annual budget, including spending of the residents’ own local tax dollars.
Largely because Congress controls taxing and spending in Washington, D.C., the District suffers from a continuing financial crisis, contributing to high crime rates, deteriorating neighborhoods and schools, and other conditions that embarrass all Americans and make our nation’s capital less attractive to visitors from this country and throughout the world.
On the revenue side, the federal government’s operations within D.C. are exempt from property, corporate income and sales taxation. All in all, an eye-popping 42 percent of the land within Washington, D.C. - worth $20.8 billion in all - is exempt from taxation. That’s a larger share of the land than is tax-exempt in any other city or state in the entire country. Nor is D.C. allowed to tax the tens of thousands of workers who commute to the capital from nearby communities, making use of many of D.C.’s services but not helping to pay for them. Meanwhile, on the spending side, the federal government’s presence creates many expenses for which Congress doesn't reimburse the D.C. government.
That’s why local tax rates in Washington, D.C., are much higher than the average for communities in this country. And, because D.C.’s budget is often in crisis, our nation’s capital struggles with these problems:
- High crime rates and inadequate police protection;
- An aging sewer system that contributes to water pollution;
- Teacher layoffs and school buildings in need of repair and modernization;
- Hospital closings; and
- Shutdowns of public libraries.
Micromanagement - Not Real Home Rule
Because of its broad jurisdiction over our nation’s capital, Congress legislates on local matters large and small. Very often, Washington, D.C., becomes a laboratory for ill-considered experiments or the subject of symbolism that members of Congress would never impose on their own constituents.
Sometimes, Congress excludes D.C. from programs open to the states, such as a program for disadvantaged teens for which funds were approved for all the states but specifically crossed-out for our nation’s capital. Sometimes, members of Congress score points on controversial issues at the expense of D.C. residents. For instance, Congress has prevented Washington, D.C., which has a high violent crime rate, from controlling gun sales. In another action, Congress has overturned a D.C. law covering contraceptive drugs under health insurance, even though 23 states have similar laws.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress try to test their own pet projects in the nation’s capital. For instance, one member of Congress tried to impose the "flat tax" on D.C., under which wealthy people would have the same rate as middle class families, even though no Washington residents testified in favor of the idea. Other members of Congress have imposed private school vouchers on D.C., costing its public schools funds that they urgently need.
Our nation’s founders said that taxation without representation is tyranny. Experimentation without representation is irresponsible.
One Is the Loneliest Number: How Voting Representation for D.C. Could Make a Difference for America
If Washington, D.C., had voting representation in Congress, its residents would have at least one U.S. Representative. In recent years, a voting member from D.C. could have changed the outcomes of important issues, from tax cuts for the rich to special deals for the big pharmaceutical companies, not only by casting his/her own votes but also by providing leadership and persuading other members of Congress to change theirs.
For instance, in 2003, the bill extending Medicare to cover prescription drugs passed the House by one vote. Many members of Congress, as well as the District’s delegate, preferred another version of the bill, which would have allowed the government to negotiate with the drug companies to lower their prices - and one or two votes would have made the difference.