Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

Democracy's Dark Backyard

“Taxation without representation” is alive and well in America

For centuries now, the dream of a “city set on a hill” has almost single-handedly driven American politics. It started when John Winthrop—preacher, puritan and first governor of Massachusetts—drew on the phrase during a sermon to New England settlers in 1630. His founding vision of the model society and his declaration that “the eyes of all people” would be upon it were especially popular with Ronald Reagan, who called the United States “the shining city.” And while George W. Bush doesn’t employ the image explicitly, his view of America as a beacon of democracy in a darkened world is present in nearly everything he says.

Today, more than ever, that ideal is under scrutiny, with “the eyes of all people” turned to the electoral misdeeds in Florida in the past two presidential elections, the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib, and the Pentagon’s secret military tribunals in Guantánamo Bay. But one of the most glaring embarrassments in American democracy is also one of its oldest and least known.

The capital of the “shining city” is, of course, Washington DC. Clustered around the monuments we can all readily imagine lies a city of neighbourhoods. From the bustling stalls at Eastern Market to the well-appointed brownstones of Georgetown, the city’s everyday life is diverse and evolving—a far cry from the staid monolith presented on CNN. Yet all of its 553,000 citizens, from the wealthy in Dupont Circle to the overwhelmingly poor south of the Anacostia River, have at least one thing in common: they have no representative in the House and no senators in the Senate.

To put this in perspective, consider that Wyoming, which has 50,000 fewer residents than DC, is represented by one House representative and two senators. Rhode Island, which has over one million people, has two senators and two representatives. Consider, as well, that DC residents pay the second-highest per-capita taxes in the US and have lost more soldiers in combat during the twentieth century than at least three other states.

Washington is thus an international oddity: it’s the only capital city whose citizens are denied voting rights at the national level. (Ottawa, which has roughly the same population as DC, has five MPs to represent its citizens in the House of Commons). Those devoted to fixing this problem are quick to point out that even the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa allowed federal representation for residents of the seat of government. Washingtonians do, however, have the right to vote for president, a right bestowed by congressional overseers in 1961. And even with that right, under the US’s electoral-college system, DC residents are only entitled to the same number of electoral votes as the union’s least populous state—regardless of their city’s actual population. In other words, even if DC’s population dou-bled in size (which should entitle it to four electors), it may never have more than Wyoming’s total of three.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about DC’s democratic void, you’re not alone. Nearly 80 percent of Americans are unaware of the problem. And while that number is falling thanks to a massive public-relations campaign waged over the last decade (which included the “Taxation Without Representation” protest licence plates in 2000 and a proposal to add the slogan to the city’s flag), organizers still face an uphill battle.


To understand why, we need to go back to 1783 when Congress was located in Philadelphia. On a June day, a group of Pennsylvania militiamen surrounded the State House and demanded back pay for the recent revolutionary war. Congress had actually recessed, but founding father and marketing genius Alexander Hamilton called the representatives back to the building, and the soldiers agreed to let them in. Though Congress had nothing to do with the dispute (the soldiers’ gripe was with the Pennsylvania government), Hamilton successfully used the image of Congress surrounded by militiamen to manufacture the need for exclusive federal control over the seat of government. He had already argued that a strong central government was only possible if the capital could be freed from entanglement with any one state, and the militamen’s “assault” was all the evidence he needed to convince his fellow leaders. Despite objections from many different factions, the event led to Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the US Constitution:

[The Congress shall have the power] to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States.

The Constitution now guaranteed that the federal government would no longer be located inside an individual state, but inside a district controlled by the federal government itself. And when Congress finally relocated to Washington in 1800, the protections afforded to the states could no longer be extended to the city; the nearly 11,000 residents of the new capital thus lost their voting rights. True, the Constitution does not specifically exclude Washingtonians from casting ballots, but voting rights are indirectly conferred to citizens through their respective states. Since Washington
was now established by the Constitution as a federal “district,” all of the language referring to “states” simply did not apply within its city limits. And so it remains.

After several distinct forms of territorial government run by everyone from justices of the peace to president-appointed commissioners, the city regained limited home rule in the nineteen-seventies with a mayor and a city council. A district delegate was installed in the House of Representatives but he or she could only vote in committee and his or her vote could not be the deciding one. In the end, the congressional committees that dealt with DC’s daily affairs retained veto power over all city matters.

Indeed, self-rule has often been revoked at the whim of Congress. When the city faced a crippling fiscal crisis in the late nineteen-nineties, most of the mayor’s powers were transferred to an unelected Financial Control Board for five years. And in 1998, when DC residents approved the legalization of medical marijuana in a valid ballot initiative, the Republican-controlled Congress overturned the results. With-out a constitutional amendment, Congress will always be the last arbiter of local policies decided upon by city residents. Illinois representative Philip Crane reminded Washingtonians of their place in the pecking order when Congress overturned a sexual assault bill put forth by the city council in 1981: “We are the local government here … People might quarrel with how well we do our job, but there isn’t much they can do about it.”


As with many things in Washington, the proposed solution is nearly as messy as the problem itself. DC’s longtime delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has annually tabled legislation that would immediately give DC the same rights as a state: one voting representative in the House and two senators. The legislation has invariably died each session, although not without occasionally garnering high-profile support, most recently in the form of Senate co-sponsorship by former vice-presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman.

This year, advocates of equal representation have forged an unlikely alliance with the Republican chairman of the Committee on Government Reform, one of the committees charged with overseeing DC matters. Democratic representative Tom Davis introduced HR 2043 (the District of Columbia Fairness in Representation Act) in May, and he has been joined by twelve Republican co-sponsors. While the act does not address representation in the Senate, Davis’s proposal would temporarily expand the House from 435 members to 437, adding extra seats for the District of Columbia and Utah.

That’s right: Utah—one of the fastest growing states in the union. Lawmakers there cried foul after the 2000 census, claiming that thousands of Mormon missionaries serving overseas had not been counted. The official head count left the state just eighty-six people shy of the number needed to obtain another seat in the House. Davis’s proposal, if passed, would remedy that.

But that’s not the whole story. Motives for tying Washington’s fate to Utah’s bellyaching make more sense once one takes a closer look at the District’s political orientation. While the fortunes of official Washington ebb and flow with the national mood, the city’s 120 neighbourhoods constitute the most homogenous, reliably Democratic constituency from sea to shining sea. Since being given the right to vote for president, DC residents have never come anywhere close to nominating a Republican. The city has never had a Republican mayor, and the only Republicans to ever serve on the DC council have been fiscal conservatives with leftist social values—the kind you might expect to find sipping brightly coloured martinis at a gay engagement party with Belinda Stronach.

Utah, on the other hand, is home to George W. Bush’s staunchest supporters; it’s arguably the reddest state in the union. An extra vote for Utah would leave Republican leaders feeling confident that DC’s newfound equality would be cancelled out in practice. In fact, the issue in recent years has always been centred upon the concept of “vote neutrality”—a nice way of saying that DC may only be franchised if there is no possibility of it making a difference in national politics. Davis himself, in an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, called this “the beauty of [the] solution … neither party gains any advantage.”

But Davis is leaving something out. Beauty, in this case, is in the eye of the Republican beholder. With an extra seat in Utah, the GOP will have a much easier time redrawing constituency borders in that state—which would eliminate Utah’s only Democratic-leaning district. This is why few Democrats have yet been willing to co-sponsor the legislation. Even Norton, a staunch supporter of equal representation, has declined to publicly support the bill. Nevertheless, while no additional hearings have been scheduled, a spokesperson for the Government Reform Committee reports that “they’ll be doing ‘a lot’ of work on the issue this fall.”

Part of that work is undoubtedly tied to mending the GOP’s strategically important relationship with the African-American community, since
the district’s population is pre-dominantly (60 percent) black (compared to just over 12 percent nationally). Washington’s disen-franchisement is seen in some quarters as the last unfulfilled promise of the civil-rights movement, causing many to wonder whether the situation would be the same if a half million white citizens had been denied equal representation for two centuries. In fact, Davis’s previously mentioned op-ed billed the so-called “vote neutral” resolution as a way to “creatively look for solutions to issues African Americans care about.” It remains to be seen if the DC vote issue will be floated to deflect accusations that the GOP doesn’t care for poor blacks—as evidenced, according to critics, by federal mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

The Davis bill may pass, and representation may come incrementally, spurred by this first small step. But to most, the real issue is one of dignity: a city surrounded by the institutions of the world’s pre-eminent democracy is being denied the very rights these institutions claim to symbolize. The district’s official motto may be Justitia Omnibus—justice for all—but until the rest of the country sees Washington as a city of politics and not a city for politics, justice will have to be reserved for those who live outside of the Beltway.