Building support for DC statehood—DC’s best hope for democracy

Voters in the District won’t just be voting for president in November: they will also be voting on their future as a state, thanks to DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, with the backing of DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson and the DC Statehood Commission, who is mounting a full court press to turn a large part of the District of Columbia into the State of New Columbia — the 51st state in the union.

The campaign features the development of a proposed state constitution and new boundaries for the part of the District of Columbia that will remain under congressional control as the constitutional “seat of government.” The plan is that the DC government would hold a referendum in November to allow the voters to ask their elected officials to petition Congress for statehood. If the voters approve, the Mayor and the DC Council would ask the new president and new Congress to enact legislation creating New Columbia, and DC citizens would for the first time begin to exercise the same democratic rights and responsibilities as other citizens of the United States.

Although DC statehood mainly matters to its own residents, the rest of America should care, too – in the world’s greatest democracy, all our citizens should be made aware of the fact that the 500,000 residents of the nation’s capital live in a democracy-free zone. Our plight needs to be brought to the attention of voters across the country—the voters to whom Congress responds.

The case for DC statehood

If you live in DC, the case for DC statehood is about basic fairness: there’s no reason why Americans should lack basic rights because of where they live. And if there ever was a place where democracy should be fully protected, it should be in the capital of democracy’s chief advocate, the United States of America.

People who live in the District pay federal taxes, are subject to federal laws, and fight and die in the country’s wars, but they have no voting representation in the Congress that imposes those taxes, passes those laws, and declares those wars.

Even worse, while Congress has the constitutional authority to legislate for the District as the country’s “seat of government,” it uses that authority to decide purely local D.C. issues, including how the District can spend its own locally-raised tax dollars on matters that have nothing to do with the federal interest.

This glaring lack of democracy in the District should be embarrassing to a country that calls itself the greatest democracy in the world. No other democracy on earth denies self-government to the residents of its capital city. The United States shouldn’t do this either.

In recent years, many DC residents, including the authors, hoped Congress would mitigate the effects of the most unfair aspects of DC’s special status by giving us voting representation at least in the House, and local budget autonomy, but this has not happened. When in 2009 Congress was considering a bill to give DC voting representation in the House, the Senate effectively killed the bill by attaching an amendment that would have repealed all the city’s gun safety laws and prohibited the local DC legislature from passing any other such laws.

More recently, the House of Representatives passed a bill repealing a locally-passed DC law that would give the city a measure of local budget autonomy. The law allows the District to spend its own locally-raised tax dollars without waiting for Congress to pass an appropriations act approving the District’s decisions. Such local budget autonomy for the District has been endorsed by both President Bush and President Obama and was supported by former DC oversight chairs Rep. Thomas M. Davis IIII (R-Va.) and Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.). The law was unanimously adopted by the DC Council, signed by the Mayor, overwhelmingly ratified by DC voters in a referendum, and upheld by the DC Superior Court.

Some in Congress are intent on repealing the law, not because they think budget autonomy harms the District or the country, but because the Constitution allows them to do so. In fact, the statements made by those favoring repeal strongly suggest that they think they have an obligation under the Constitution to decide for themselves when the policy choices made by local DC officials are the right choices, even if they involve purely local matters that have nothing to do with the District being the nation’s “seat of government.”

All of this suggests that another way needs to be found to bring democracy to the District of Columbia. That is why District voters should throw their weight behind the current statehood initiative. It calls for making the part of the city where DC residents live and work into a state and leaving the actual “seat of government”—including the Capitol, White House, monuments, and other federal facilities—under Congress’s jurisdiction, as required by the Constitution.

Most of the current District of Columbia has little to do with the federal “seat of government” and is simply a community like any other in the country. It should therefore be allowed democracy like those other communities, and should certainly not be denied voting representation and be second-guessed by Congress concerning local issues. This step forward can be achieved by making the portion of the District that is not part of the “seat of government” into a state.

Taking this step is completely consistent with the Constitution and with the Framers’ vision for the nation’s capital, which included a Constitutional provision directing Congress to establish the “seat of government” of no more than 100 square miles. It is now clear that the “seat of government” does not need to be anywhere near that large.

In fact, in 1846, Congress retroceded the nearly one-third of the District located west of the Potomac River to Virginia, in part because it wasn’t needed for the seat of government. Congress can now do the same with most of the rest of the District, allowing it to become the State of New Columbia. This single act would automatically bring voting rights and local autonomy to residents of the District who have for too long been denied it. It would also allow Congress to focus its attention on the small area around the Capitol, the Mall and the White House– the actual “seat of government.”

Convincing the Rest of the Country

While DC residents may feel think the rest of the country should be outraged at the denial of democracy to fellow citizens who happen to live in the capital, most people who live elsewhere know little about our situation. They often do not even know that DC residents have no voting representation in Congress. According to the most recent polling, 78 percent of Americans mistakenly think DC residents have congressional representation, but when properly informed, 82 percent think the District should have a vote in Congress.

Moreover, many Americans do not know that Washingtonians pay high local taxes to support local services (in part because we are denied the right to tax the incomes of people who work in DC but do not live here). We have even met people in other parts of the country who think that local services in DC are financed by their federal taxes. Some also have vague memories of DC’s financial crisis in 1995 and do not realize that its municipal finances have been responsibly managed for two decades and are now a model for other cities.

For all these reasons, DC leaders must back the current statehood effort with a well-organized, well-funded, and sustained national campaign. Such a campaign would inform Americans throughout the country about the disregard for democracy in the nation’s capital so that they can encourage their elected representatives to fix it. In a democracy we cannot expect Congress just to do the right thing unless the right thing has widespread public support among their own constituents. If DC is serious about becoming New Columbia, it will have to work hard and devote resources to building that grassroots support in the rest of the country.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the Northwest Current.