"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).
Blame 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
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"