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D.C. Voting Rights 'Dead as a Doornail': Taxation Without Representation Lives On

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"This country was founded on resistance to taxation without representation," declared Vincent Gray, mayor-elect of the nation's capital, at a recent hotel groundbreaking. If the city does not secure voting rights in the House and Senate sometime soon, he allowed, widespread civil disobedience may be required to force the issue.

No tea party firebrand, Gray, a Democrat, used the battle cry of Revolutionary colonists -- voiceless in the British Parliament they helped finance -- to note that this city of nearly 600,000 sends $3.6 billion a year to the IRS. That's more money paid than seven states that enjoy full voting rights. As for the supreme sacrifice, Washington has lost more men and women in battle than 20 states, according to the D.C. Council.

That said, Congress -- which has no fully empowered House or Senate lawmakers from D.C.-- can veto any local bill or budget item already approved by the mayor, the council or the voters. That means the city is ultimately run by lawmakers most Washingtonians have never heard of from states they've never visited. Congress refused to let D.C. use its own tax money for abortions for poor women, banned needle exchanges for drug addicts and barred local election officials from counting any ballots in a 1998 referendum on medical marijuana (reportedly approved by 69 percent of the electorate).

DC voting rightsBlame the Founding Fathers, who wanted the government in a distinct federal enclave -- the District of Columbia -- and not part of any state. Since only states can be represented on Capitol Hill, Washington is shut out. (Heck, residents couldn't even vote for president until the passage of the 23rd Amendment in 1961.)

A constitutional amendment giving D.C. a vote in the House and Senate died a quarter-century ago after being ratified by only 16 of the necessary 38 states between 1978 and 1985.

"We are a plantation," sneered Mark Plotkin, a rabid voting-rights activist and a political analyst for radio station WTOP.

It was Plotkin who got President-elect Bill Clinton to put the city's "Taxation Without Representation" license tags
on the White House limo (they were promptly removed in 2000 by George W. Bush, who preferred the slogan-free version).

Despite Gray's claim that "we deserve the same rights as everybody else," the city is out of luck, concede backers of a measure that would have added two new full-fledged members to the House: one from solidly Democratic D.C., the other from Republican Utah, which missed getting an additional seat after the 2000 census.

In recent years, versions of the D.C./Utah bill passed either the House or the Senate, but not both chambers. Last year, after Senate passage, local officials balked at a provision tacked onto the bill that would have repealed the city's tough gun-control laws. D.C. partisans refused to introduce the measure in the House, where stripping out the gun language would have meant certain defeat.

"It's now dead as a doornail," former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a voting rights champion, told Politics Daily. "I just think they blew it, and that said a lot about them being risk averse. The Democratic leadership couldn't let the bill through this time without gun language, so the opportunity is gone. They should have done it."

Today, what passes for national representation in Congress is a lone, non-voting House delegate, similar to those from such U.S. territories as American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Third-generation Washingtonian Eleanor Holmes Norton, first elected in 1990, can vote on the committees where she serves, but has no say on legislation once it reaches the House floor, even if it directly affects her city.

Small wonder that Comedy Central's fake anchorman Stephen Colbert, with whom Norton spars periodically on "The Colbert Report," mocks her for having "less power than a student council president," she recently told local developers.

Like Gray, Norton hopes American voters will rise up in anger once they realize Washingtonians are disenfranchised. "Of course, this new Congress is against it. They don't want the District representing itself. The tea party will not focus on it. We have got to raise the ante so that in two years we will be talking to a different kind of Congress." That may not happen.

Neither is it likely that Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) will manage to solve the city's voting rights problem with a pair of bills he introduced last year and will re-introduce when the new House convenes in January. His No Taxation Without Representation Act would require that Washington residents be treated just like the folks who live in other U.S. territories: In return for having no real voice on Capitol Hill, they are exempt from paying any federal income taxes.

Gohmert said he was inspired by the city's license tags and by Benjamin Franklin, who told his fellow revolutionaries that "if we don't elect at least one member of Parliament that sets the tax, we should not have to pay them."

His second measure involves "retrocession," or giving back to neighboring Maryland much of the real estate that makes up the District of Columbia. All federal buildings would remain in the District of Columbia, complying with the constitutional requirement for a capital outside any one state. Residential areas would revert to Maryland, which would get an additional House seat for all those former Washingtonians. And just like that, the newcomers would enjoy the automatic benefits of having two Maryland senators fighting their battles.

The only problem with either bill, he said, was that Norton would not support them because she felt doing so would "detract" from her initiative for full voting rights. "With Eleanor not supporting it, it doesn't look good," Gohmert acknowledged.

Retrocession supporter Jonathan Turley, who teaches constitutional law at George Washington University in the District, told Politics Daily that a new city called Washington, Md., could become its own House district, and that its nearly 600,000 overwhelmingly Democratic residents could join forces with some 5.7 million heavily Democratic Marylanders.

Yes, Turley acknowledged, former D.C. residents might worry that they would be subsumed as a fraction of the state's population, "but Marylanders worry that the center of gravity would shift from Baltimore to Washington. The Democrats in Maryland don't want to share power with D.C. and the Republicans fear Maryland would become even more blue."

At the moment, neither the House nor the Senate seems to be in any rush to deprive the federal treasury of $3.6 billion in tax money, and city officials seem disinclined to give up their extremely limited sovereignty.

Amid the current electoral upheavals and economic crises, perhaps the plight of the District of Columbia was best summed up by the man recently spotted in front of the White House holding a protest sign:

"Taxation WITH Representation Isn't So Hot"

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18 Comments

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morinmorinvc

We're gradually becoming like the old Great Britain with kings and queens in Washington D.C.,and the workers who pay their taxes are becoming like the sirfs of the old ways,paying to keep a corrupt government in control.Fortunately,the US Constitution provides for the right of all citizens to rebel as long as it is done peacefully.The Tea Party movement is a good start .But,then,we don't know what protocols previous presidents have signed into order to deprive us of our rights.It's all done under the rights of the government to protect the citizens from becoming rebellious and keep the current parties in control of our destiny.Too many people think the US Constition obsolete.

November 18 2010 at 8:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
trb2244

If you don't like the situation, move somewhere else. On the other hand, Virginia took back its half of D.C.,and those Washingtonians would surely fit right in with the People's Republic of Maryland. I'll leave room for you: I'm moving to Pennsylvania! (or as we say, " to the other side of the Iron Curtain." Oh, one more thing: those D.C. gun laws aren't "tough", they're unconstitutional and illegal. SCOTUS says so!

November 18 2010 at 7:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

The district was sliced off the State of Maryland, why not just return the land, create a voting block district in DC attached to the state of Maryland and be done with it.

November 18 2010 at 3:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dc walker's comment
dsimon3000

And when you buy something in another state, you pay a sales tax without being represented in that state. But you don't live in your hotel, and you don't live in another state. We all live in the US, and we all have representation--except for over half a million people who live in DC who all pay federal taxes without their consent in the form of a congressional representative. Really, I don't understand the resistance to providing people in DC with representation (or exempting them from federal taxes if representation is denied).

November 18 2010 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ettu

Let us not forget that DC also enjoys something near 100% employment, unheard of across the country today.

November 20 2010 at 12:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
drdave415

If you travel and stay in a hotel in another state, you pay a tax without representation

November 18 2010 at 12:12 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
blackburndh

It's sad but it will take disobedience to get heard. That appears to be the only way to get heard by those who want to deny representation, mainly the Republicans! It's just there way of forcing slavery on DC citizens who deserve representation. Why can't our government admit it that everyone deserves representation. It's that they know DC is Democratic!

November 18 2010 at 10:55 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to blackburndh's comment
joehntwv

I think you need to go back and re-read the artical and maybe do a little more research. You're crying that it is the Republicans that are oppressing the residents of DC...did you miss the fact from the article that Tom Davis (R-VA) was a "voting rights champion" or that Louie Gohmert (R-TX) introduced two bills to establish DC voting rights in the DEMOCRATICALLY CONTROLLED CONGRESS and both were kept from advancing to the floor? Sounds to me like the Democrats in Congress or the Democrats running DC are the ones that are keeping DC disenfranchised because the former may be afraid of losing a talking point, or the latter refuses to give its citizens their second amendment rights, despite the SCOTUS ruling.

November 18 2010 at 6:33 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dsimon3000

reply to Joehntwv: You're right that some Republicans are willing to live up to their principles regarding representation. But I don't think DC representation should be held hostage to a constitutional debate over its gun control laws. If someone wants to challenge DC's restrictions, let them do so in court (SCOTUS still says that some regulation can be constitutional). But the fundamental right of representation should not be dependent on it. (I'll also note the fact that those attempting to force Congressional gun legislation on DC are doing so from a body that no one in DC can vote for.)

November 18 2010 at 7:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike

The District of Columbia was set up for a reason. People knew where thay where moving to. Don't go crying to everyone else when you knew the rules before you went there. Like someone else said, " If you don't like it there, move. That is also your right.

November 18 2010 at 9:20 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Mike's comment
dsimon3000

You could say that about people who moved here before the Revolution. The colonies were set up for a reason. People who moved here knew what they were getting themselves into, so they had no right to use the "no taxation without reperesentation" complaint. If they didn't like it, they should have stayed in England!

November 18 2010 at 9:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Wendy

Check your logic, Mike. I think dsimon3000 is correct.

November 18 2010 at 12:17 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
CCI Parts Whrs

I am sure the same claims about how much taxes they pay could be claimed by L.A, New York City, and Atlanta. I do not hear any of them asking for separate votes for themselves. The idea that a city would get its own reps is ludicris. Do what the one rep is saying and give all residental and non Government business areas back to Maryland. That IS the proper way to handle this.

November 18 2010 at 8:47 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to CCI Parts Whrs's comment
dsimon3000

"I am sure the same claims about how much taxes they pay could be claimed by L.A, New York City, and Atlanta. I do not hear any of them asking for separate votes for themselves." That's because people in those cities have reperesentation in the entities that impose their taxes, both locally and in Congress. DC residents have no say in what Congress imposes on them. I'm not opposed to retrocession to MD. I just think it's wrong to tax people without their "consent" in the form of representation, which DC residents don't have in Congress.

November 18 2010 at 9:42 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ggadi

"Retrocession" makes perfect sense, giving back to neighboring Maryland much of the real estate that makes up the District of Columbia. All federal buildings would remain in the District of Columbia, complying with the constitutional requirement for a capital outside any one state. Residential areas would revert to Maryland, which would get an additional House seat.

November 18 2010 at 4:47 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Gene

ialbel has got it right...No city should have the rights of a state. The situation was addressed by the founding fathers, and there is no valid reason to change. If you want to vote ... MOVE! Why should a city with the population of 600,000 have the same representation of a state that has millions of residents. It is also predominatly democrat. Go figure.

November 18 2010 at 3:34 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Gene's comment
dsimon3000

Why should the designation "city" or "state" matter? DC has more people in it than the entire state of Wyoming, and everyone in Wyoming has two senators and a representative in the House. If a legislative body is making rules that affect you, you shouldn't have to move to have a representative in that body. It should be a basic right. (And whether a group of people belong to a particular political party should have no bearing on whether they are entitled to representation.)

November 18 2010 at 9:39 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
petergrfx

Why should a state even less populous than the "mere" city of Washington, D.C., "have the same representation of a state that has millions of residents"? Your argument lacks logic or consistency.

November 18 2010 at 12:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ialbel

Yay ...as it should be! No city should have the rights of a state. The situation was addressed by the founding fathers, and there is no valid reason to change. If you want to vote ... MOVE!

November 17 2010 at 10:55 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply

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