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.

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