Published: Friday, November 2, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 18:11
Each license plate on a car registered in the District reads “Taxation Without Representation,” the old Revolutionary War-era saying. But to residents of this city, that sentiment isn’t merely historical — it’s the slogan of a decades-old struggle that’s still ongoing.
Many in the District are fighting for D.C. statehood. This would give Washingtonians full representation in Congress — residents currently have no voting representatives in either chamber — and control over their local budget, which currently is subject to full oversight by Congress.
“We have all the responsibilities of American citizens, but people we did not elect are making decisions about our money, whether or not we fight wars, [and] they decide how we spend local dollars,” Communications Director for D.C. Vote and D.C. resident James Jones said.
A Historic Effort
Though the issues of voting representatives in Congress and control over the budget now dominate the conversation about D.C. autonomy, there was a time when District residents couldn’t even vote for president and vice president. In 1953, President Eisenhower supported a constitutional amendment granting D.C. voting rights in presidential elections, but it took another eight years before the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961, granting the city three electors in the Electoral College. In 1969, a group including Julius Hobson, civil rights activist and statehood advocate, established the D.C. Statehood Party, an organization committed to ending congressional control over the District’s laws and budget.
In 1970, Congress granted the District a delegate to the House of Representatives, a post currently filled by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Norton is able to vote in committee and draft legislation, but she lacks the full voting rights of the 435 other members of the House of Representatives.
Achieving the lofty goal of statehood would require the cooperation of most of the country. In order to become a state, a constitutional amendment would require approval from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and from three-fourths of state legislatures. The other method of amending the Constitution, which has never been used, requires a convention of two-thirds of the state legislatures who can propose as many amendments as they want for ratification by three-fourths of the states.
But advantages of statehood go beyond budget and voting rights. According to Georgetown history professor Maurice Jackson, statehood would allow the District to establish a reciprocal state income tax for those who work in Washington but live in the neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland. Since 67 percent of the District’s workforce claims residence outside the city, the capital would be able to fund more of its own projects and investments through new taxpayer revenue. Moreover, as home to many nonprofits and lobbying groups, Washington as a state would be able to collect taxes from previously tax-exempt organizations including National Geographic and the National Rifle Association.
Battling Over Budgets
While full statehood is the end goal for most voting rights advocates in the District, organizations like D.C. Vote, a nonprofit founded in 1998, have set their sights on a more achievable goal for the immediate future: budget autonomy.
“We support any means to getting a vote in the House of Representatives and getting our two senators,” Jones said, explaining his organization’s advocacy for an independent D.C. budget. “That path for us involves a couple of things, the most important one being advocating for any step that increases our right to self-determination.”
Under current laws, the District’s yearly budget has to be approved by Congress, a process that can take months and can impact the functioning of the local government.
This state of affairs was created when the District of Columbia Home Rule Act was passed in 1973, allowing for the election of the mayor and the city council. This was an important step in giving the local government control but in many ways left the city subject to the whim of Congress.
“That’s a basic violation of our rights to self-determination. No one else has someone [whom] they did not elect tell them when and how to spend their money,” Jones said. “And it always gets caught up in the partisan bickering on the Hill.”
In case of a federal government shutdown — a possibility that has reared its head twice in 2011 and once in 2012 — the results would be far more troubling for Washington residents than for citizens of states. Not only would the government stop working, affecting thousands of employees for an unknown amount of time, but local services would also cease operating.
“Because D.C.’s budget is directly tied to the federal budget, our garbage would stop being picked up and the [Department of Motor Vehicles] would shut down,” Scott Stirrett (SFS ’13) said, explaining the consequences of a federal shutdown. “These are just other examples of why it is important for D.C. students to care about statehood.”
The co-founder of D.C. Students Speak, Stirrett works alongside peers from across the District to promote student voices in the city government. The organization supports full voting rights for the District of Columbia, among other platforms. According to its website, the organization “will not realize our shared vision of collaborative universities and communities until all of D.C.’s residents achieve full democracy.”
To reach this goal, DCSS is currently drafting a letter to send to students in order to encourage support for certain aspects of D.C. representation.