Thursday, January 8

THE CAPTIVE CAPITAL

The Democrats will soon be making a big fuss about giving DC a token vote in the House - or, as the late civil rights activist Julius Hobson put it, "sending a eunuch to an orgy. As a sign of how the effort to end the capital's colonial status has deteriorated, however, you probably won't hear much about DC statehood, the logical solution. And you certainly won't be told that in the early 1990s both the NY Times and the Washington Post, which then had more guts, supported DC statehood.

Washington Post editorial, Jan 13, 1993 - It is time to right a great historic wrong. Since 1800, the residents of Washington, D.C., have been the only tax paying U.S. citizens denied representation in Congress. With the election of Bill Clinton, it has become politically possible to give them the status that is their due. We believe now is the time to begin defining an then putting in place an arrangement that puts District residents on an equal footing with all Americans.

It has long been our preference to have this city remain the seat of the national government with increased municipal powers, which, taken as whole, would give residents the same democratic rights enjoyed by other citizens. The goals have included full voting representation in the House and the Senate, complete independence from Congress on budget and legislative matters, control over the local court system including the appointment of judges, an automatic and predictable federal payment formula and the ability to negotiate reciprocal income tax arrangements with neighboring jurisdictions. Achieving each, as a strategy was far more important than what the final package ended up being called. As a step toward that end, Congress passed a proposed constitutional amendment 15 years ago that would have given the city full congressional representation. Only 16 of the required 38 states ratified the proposal, mostly for partisan reasons. Republican lawmakers wanted no more democrats in Congress (and, as some suspect, many legislators wanted no more blacks there as well). The only achievable alternative, if citizens here are to enjoy the full political participation that is there due, is statehood. . .

Denying District residents the right to send people to Congress who can vote on taxes or decide questions of war and peace while at the same time expecting them to shoulder the burdens of citizenship--including the obligation to pay taxes and to fight and die for their country--is wrong. Forcing local officials to perform their duties under today's restrictive conditions is no better. . .

Congress at its whim passes laws regulating purely local matters, including the spending of local tax money. Even the city's own elected delegate to the House of Representatives can't vote on final passage of any legislation, including District-only matters. . .

Statehood opponents argue that the voteless status of the District descends directly form the intent of the Framers of the Constitution-from Washington, Madison and their peers. True, the constitution calls for a federal district (and the statehood proposal allows for one, leaving the `federal seat of government' to consist of the mall, monuments and principal U.S. government buildings). At the same time the government of the United States moved here in 1800, the largest city, New York, had a population of little more than 60,000. What would Washington and Madison say about a voteless city 10 times larger than that? We know what they said in 1776 in behalf of a colonist population only four times larger that today's Washington, D.C. They wanted to be among those who governed themselves. So do the citizens of Washington today. . .

New York Times, November 25, 1991 - The effort to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., could well become a campaign issue in 1992. A bill that would admit the District to the Union as New Columbia, the 51st state, was introduced in the Senate. And hearings on the House version of the bill saw a welcome burst of enthusiasm. Three Democratic Presidential candidates testified in favor of statehood and others sent messages of support.

That's as it should be. The District's treatment is a scandal, albeit one with a long history. The Federal Government runs the city like a plantation, denying it a voting representative in Congress, forbidding it even rudimentary self-rule and limiting severely its ability to raise revenue.

President Bush favors keeping the District on its knees. But Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa testified before Congress that the District deserved to become a full partner in the Union. The three were on the mark.

Washingtonians have long been denied rights that the rest of us take for granted. They weren't allowed to vote in Presidential elections until 1964. And it was not until the Home Rule Act of 1973 that they could elect a mayor and city council; both had previously been appointed.

The Home Rule Act left the Federal Government's dictatorial powers intact. Congress can overturn any law the District council passes. A powerful senator can throw some cash to friends by attaching amendments to the city's budget bill. And one meddlesome Congressman can by himself trigger bearings on any law by simply raising an objection to it.

The Federal Government is not above extortion. Mr. Bush recently vetoed the city budget, forcing the District to ban the use of locally raised tax revenues to furnish abortions for impoverished women. And Congress used similar blackmail to force repeal of a law that made gun dealers and manufacturers liable for injuries from assault weapons. The citizens have reinstated the measure; gun-lobbying senators may yet thwart it. The District's non-voting representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, spends much of her time fending off odious infringements like these.

Fiscal restrictions abound. The Federal Government's real estate is exempt from taxation; the city is forbidden to tax the earnings of commuters, most of whom are Federal employees. District officials say these restrictions cause the city to forgo $1.9 billion in revenues per year. Last year the Federal Government paid a paltry $430 million in return. Denied sources of revenue, the city levies some of the highest taxes in the nation.

Those who oppose statehood typically offer weak constitutional arguments against it. It seems fairly clear, however, that Republicans who oppose statehood do so because the District would send two more Democrats to the Senate.

But most Americans understand democracy well. The issue of statehood for the District raises an obvious question: How can we justify championing democracy abroad while inflicting second-class citizenship in the nation's capital? The answer is obvious, too: We can't.

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