Sunday, November 29, 2015

Give Congressional Representation to the District of Columbia

The American Revolution was sparked by a belief among the colonists that the British had no right to tax them without their consent. Contrary to the popular belief of our cynical age, it was not the taxes themselves to which the colonists objected, but the constitutionality of their implementation. As far as the Americans were concerned, only their own colonial legislatures, and not Parliament in far-off London, had a right to tax the colonies. After all, the colonial legislatures were made up of Americans, elected by Americans, to govern Americans. Parliament, in which Americans had no representation, had no right under natural law to tax the colonies, no matter how trivial the amount. It was this belief - "no taxation without representation" - that first ignited the Revolution that would create the United States of America and reshape the world.

It is ironic that the capital of the nation created by the American Revolution today suffers the very fate that their ancestors fought so long and hard against.

The District of Columbia has a population of more than 650,000. This is more people than live in either Vermont or Wyoming. Although the 23rd Amendment gave the citizens of the District the right to cast their votes in Presidential elections, they are still denied any meaningful representation in Congress. The District has a single non-voting member in the House of Representatives and no representation at all in the Senate. Despite this lack of congressional representation, the citizens of the District of Columbia are subject to all forms of federal taxation just as if they were citizens of New York or Texas. This truly is a case of taxation without representation.

This shameful situation must be properly remedied by providing the citizens of the District of Columbia with representation in the United States Congress.

Some have called for this situation to be solved through the simple expedient of making the District of Columbia a state in its own right. Another possible solution is to simply give the district back to Maryland and toss the 650,000 D.C. residents into the political mix of that state. However, either of these two proposals face a particular problem: they would give a state control over the territory housing the federal government. James Madison pointed out in Federalist #43 that "a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy." In other words, having the seat of federal government within the confines of a particular state could give that state disproportionate influence over the federal government.

Madison probably wrote this with a particular incident in mind. In late 1783, Congress had been threatened by mutinous soldiers demanding back pay. The Governor of Pennsylvania, who sympathized with the soldiers, refused to provide adequate protection for the members of Congress, thus forcing them to ingloriously flee to Annapolis. The lesson had been learned: the seat of the national government had to be under the direct control of the national government, otherwise the state in which it was situated with always have disproportionate influence vis-à-vis the other states.

A better option than making D.C. a state or giving it back to Maryland would be to pass legislation that simply states that the District of Columbia should, for the purposes of elections to the House of Representatives, be considered a state. This was the intention behind a bill which was proposed back in 2007, which would have given an extra seat to heavily-Republican Utah to ensure the party balance remains unaffected. However, it seems quite clear that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to grant voting power to the District. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution states unambiguously that only "the people of the several states" can send representatives to the House. The District of Columba is not a state and therefore the law is unconstitutional.

It seems to me that giving D.C. representation in Congress would require a constitutional amendment. This was done in 1961 to give D.C. the right to vote in presidential election, when the 23rd Amendment was enacted. Congress did, in fact, pass an amendment to give D.C. congressional representation in 1978, but it was not passed by enough state legislatures to become law. We need to do it again, and this time do it right.

Whether D.C. representation in the Senate should be included in this proposal is up for debate. However, given the overwhelmingly Democratic voting record of D.C. residents, I think any measure that included D.C. representation in the Senate would have a difficult time becoming the law of the land, as the Republican party would make every effort to block any such proposal. It's better to push for legislation that gives you half of what you want and has a chance of actually passing then going to wall for legislation that gives you everything you want and has no chance of passing.

If enacted, this amendment would remove an institutional hypocrisy from the American governmental system that has been ignored for too long. If America really cares about democracy, it would get to work on this issue right away.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Save Princeton

Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night of 1776 is one of the most iconic historical events that the American nation holds within its collective memory. Arguably the most famous painting in America depicts the crossing, albeit with massive inaccuracies. Most educated Americans have heard the tale of the surprise attack that caught the Hessians in Trenton completely by surprise (because they were hung over from drinking too much at Christmas dinner, at least according to legend). After several months of disastrous defeats, with the Revolution tittering on the brink of collapse, Washington's brilliant and daring strategy restored faith that America might actually win the war.

But Trenton was only the first of two American victories during that epic winter campaign. Less well-known, perhaps unfairly, was the battle that took place a few days after the crossing, a few miles to the northeast, at Princeton, New Jersey.

The story is dramatic.  The British were enraged by Washington's success at Trenton and moved swiftly against him. But Washington eluded the enemy at Assunpink Creek during the night of January 2, leaving his campfires burning to deceive the enemy and pushing his men out onto the roads for a night march. Quickly moving north around the British left flank and pushing deep behind enemy lines, the Americans arrived at Princeton in the morning. A fierce battle erupted between the Americans and the British regiments that were passing through the town.

By the standards of later conflicts, it was a not a big battle. 4,500 Americans faced off against 1,200 British troops. In the American Civil War, it would have been considered a medium-sized skirmish. Yet it was a fiercely contested engagement and the outcome of the American Revolution was going to be determined by its outcome. At first, the British appeared to have the advantage. General Hugh Mercer, one of the unsung heroes of the American Revolution, valiantly fought with his saber until being struck down by a dozen bayonets. Mercer's brigade broke under the British onslaught, for the redcoats at Princeton were some of the finest infantry in the world. American militiamen under General John Cadwalader appeared, but they also collapsed in a rout. It appeared that the British were about the win a decisive victory. If they did, it would surely result in the destruction of Washington's army and the end of the American Revolution.

It was at this moment that Washington himself appeared on horseback. It was a dramatic event, tailor-made for a Hollywood epic. A British bullet could have killed Washington in an instant, and with him the hopes and dreams of the infant American republic, yet no bullet touched him. With him were Virginia and New England Continentals, who took up good positions and poured volley after volley into the ranks of their British enemies. Stunned by the sudden turn of events, the British ranks broke and fled. The Americans had triumphed.

Just a week after their sensational triumph over the Hessians at Trenton, the Continentals had smashed a force of British redcoats and sent them fleeing. The effects were nothing short of dazzling. The British retreated almost all the way back to New York City, abandoning New Jersey back into the hands of the rebels. From New Hampshire to Georgia, the spirit of liberty and independence was restored as news of the victory spread.

Had the Americans lost the Battle of Princeton, it is quite likely that Washington would have lost his army and the last chance of an American victory in the Revolutionary War would have been snuffed out. The men who fought and died on that ground deserve the thanks of their nation.

Which is why I'm writing this blog post.

As Americans, it is incumbent upon us to protect and preserve the ground on which our ancestors fought and died. Much of the ground on which the Battle of Princeton was fought is today under terrible threat from developers who want to take the sacred soil and turn it into residential units. Although a fine battlefield park, run by the State of New Jersey rather than the National Park Service, currently protects and preserves 681 acres of the battlefield, the rest has little or no legal protections at all.

The Institute for Advanced Study, a division of Princeton University, wants to build residential units on a critical 7-acre portion of the battlefield. I happen to be quite fond of the Institute for Advanced Society, which has been the home of scientists as eminent at Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the great Albert Einstein himself. Yet its cavalier attitude towards the sacred ground of the Princeton battlefield is disgraceful and a stain upon the honor and dignity of a venerable institution. If it goes forward with its plans, and prevails in the legal disputes currently ongoing, history will neither forget or forgive what it did and its future reputation will be damaged beyond repair. For its own good and for the good of society, the Institute for Advanced Study should immediately renounce its plans to build homes on the sacred soil of the Princeton battlefield.

You can help save the priceless soil of the Princeton battlefield by supporting the Save Princeton effort of Campaign 1776, a national effort to preserve and protect battlefields of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The men who fought and died upon that ground in the early days of 1777 were fighting for our liberty and independence. The least we can do is ensure that the ground upon which they fought is preserved as an eternal monument to their sacrifice. Even a small financial donation can make a big difference.

Do it for them. After all, they did far more for you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Homes For Our Troops

It's November 11. Veterans Day. This is the day we set aside every year to celebrate the sacrifices that our veterans have made in defending our country.

All 535 members of Congress are going to take to Twitter to express how much we owe to the veterans. Some might even go to the trouble of issuing a press release, written, of course, by some anonymous staff member since the officer-holders themselves will doubtless be too busy (though one suspects guys like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln would have found the time). Needless to say, none of this will make the slightest bit of difference in the life of a single veteran.

Around the country, well-meaning citizens will fly the American flag and some might even wear a yellow ribbon. but most will see it merely as a day of sales at mattress stores and, if they're lucky, a day off from work. As happens each year, people will confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day or Armed Forces Day and forget whether November 11 is the a day we are supposed to honor people who died, people who served in the past but are still alive, or people who are currently serving. The fact that this is a source of confusion has always greatly annoyed me. But I suppose one of the freedoms the veterans fought for is the freedom to not care about public holidays if one so chooses.

I'm all for flying the American flag on national holidays, which I do as a matter of course, and I have no problem with wearing a yellow ribbon as a statement of support. What troubles me on Veterans Day is that people seem to think that making such symbolic gestures allows them to say that they "support the troops" and therefore absolves them from doing anything to actually help them. These men and women fought for our country, putting their lives on the line, and many have returned home with horrific injuries that will impact them for the rest of their lives. They deserve more from their country, whose freedom they have defended, then symbolic gestures and empty statements.

What is something concrete which can be done to help veterans? Allow me to make a suggestion. On this Veterans Day, I urge every individual reading this blog to become a financial supporter of the nonprofit organization Homes For Our Troops.

Founded in 2004, Homes For Our Troops has a simple, straightforward, and achievable mission. It seeks to build specially adapted houses for soldiers who have suffered serious wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as the loss of limbs, paralysis, or traumatic brain injury. These wounds are so severe that characteristics of an ordinary house which would be unnoticed by most people, such as the width of a doorway or the floor-plan of a bathroom, can be severely limiting. By building these specially adapted houses, Homes For Our Troops allows returning veterans who have suffered severe wounds to start the process of recovery and reestablish a life of independence and self-sufficiency.

Homes For Our Troops provides these homes to the wounded veterans mortgage-free. Coming out of the military with severe injuries and facing the challenge of finding a paying job to take care of themselves and their families, the last thing these veterans need is the pressure of making a mortgage payment. No one wants to live under the fear of losing their home. Considering the sacrifice these soldiers have made in defense of their country, removing the pressure of making a mortgage payment every month seems to be the least we can do.

These kinds of houses are not cheap. Indeed, their average cost is more than $400,000.  But these men and women deserve it. They risked their lives in place like Baghdad and Fallujah in Iraq and in Helmand province and Kandahar province in Afghanistan, which most of us know only as place names spoken quickly by talking heads on cable news networks. They have faced war in a way the rest of us never will. They did it for us. The least we can do is put forward some of the money to help build the houses that will enable them to live as normal a life as possible.

(I feel the need to state at this point that I am not officially associated with Homes For Our Troops in any way. I am a monthly financial donor, as I hope you will become, but that is the limit of my involvement with the organization.)

There are bitter political divisions about whether it was right or wrong to invade Iraq in 2003, just as there have been bitter political divisions about whether our forces should have remained in Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. These debates shouldn't matter when it comes to these veterans. Their country called upon them, they stepped up to the plate, and they made sacrifices for us far greater than the vast majority of us will ever be called upon to make. A small monthly donation to Homes For Our Troops is the very least we can do for them.

Abraham Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about the burden of ordering men to their deaths, said, "Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears their country's cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as best he can, the same cause."

We must heed Lincoln's words. We have an obligation to care for our brothers and sisters who have suffered debilitating wounds in the distant lands of Iraq and Afghanistan in defense of our nation's freedom. Please join me in becoming a regular donor to Homes For Our Troops. The veterans deserve it.