The difference between
DC democracy
& DC representation

A fact sheet from the Progressive Review



Representation in Congress would increase DC's political power somewhat but would not affect any of the basic colonial precepts under which the city is governed. For example, the federal government would still:

-- have plenary power over all aspects of local governance
-- control the budget
-- control the prosecution and adjudication of, as well the imprisonment for, crimes.
-- have the power to deny the city a commuter tax
-- be able to pass laws in contravention of the will of DC citizens

In other words, even with representation, DC would remain a full colony of the US, just as Algeria was before it gained independence even though it had representation in the French National Assembly.

Short of a highly improbable constitutional amendment, the only ways to gain full democracy by making DC residents equal to other Americans are statehood, retrocession to Maryland, or joining it to some other state


Theoretically yes, but in practice not. The granting of a vote in the House would essentially bury the DC colony issues for years to come


Not at all. It reflects a century-long political struggle within the city. Here is some of the history of this issue:

1888: Conservative newspaperman Theodore Noyes of the Washington Star launches campaign for congressional representation; strongly opposes real democracy. Noyes writes, "National representation for the capital community is not in the slightest degree inconsistent with control of the capital by the nation through Congress."

1899: A political scientist describes the Board of Trade - which supports a congressional vote only -- as providing DC with the ideal form of local government through a "representative aristocracy."

1919: Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce advocate congressional representation and oppose home rule. Labor unions urge elected officials.

1934: A special committee recommends a nonvoting delegate but no home rule.

1943: Board of Trade appears before Senate Committee to support representation in Congress but opposes local self-government.

1960s: Segregationist Rep. John McMillan favors a DC vote for president and vice president, says a struggle for home rule will cripple the national vote. McMillan thinks the national vote should "satisfy" DC residents "at least for a while."

1971: DC gets a nonvoting congressional delegate. In first delegate race, the statehood arguments of Julius Hobson are strongly opposed by Walter Fauntroy who will become the leader of a lengthy and futile drive for a constitutional amendment granting congressional representation.

1972: Walter Fauntroy and John Hechinger, later major players in the voting rights drive, sabotage George McGovern's planned announcement of support for DC statehood.

1981: The League of Women Voters, Walter Fauntroy, and the Washington Post - all strong advocates of congressional voting representation - are the leading voices again DC statehood.

1985: The voting rights amendment is defeated with less than half the required states voting for it. Meanwhile years of potential work for full democracy are dissipated and diluted.

2004: Delegate Norton convinces the Democratic Party to drop DC statehood from its platform, to be replaced by a call for voting rights. According to The Washington Times, "Pat Elwood, vice chairman of the [Democratic] state committee, said she agreed with Mrs. Norton's view that statehood 'dilutes' the message of congressional voting representation.


Two things:

-- Genuine and understandable confusion about the issue by well-intentioned citizens who have been propagandized into thinking that democracy and representation are the same.

-- The interests of big business and lawyer-lobbyists in having a representative on the Hill whom they can buy through campaign contributions and later control. While this problem would exist in any form of status change, it is preeminent when representation is sought and democracy isn't.


This is one of these slogans that sounds far better than it is. The slogan actually stemmed from a major complaint of the business and upper classes against the British crown and, much like corporate mantras of today, such as "free markets", it gained a currency far broader than its applicability.

While New England businessmen were speaking of representation in the English parliament, perhaps the most famous speech on behalf of the principle was by Patrick Henry in a fiery address in 1765 against the Stamp Act in which he declared, "If this be treason, make the most of it."

What's significant is that Henry was not speaking of representation in the Parliament, but rather of the right of the Virginia legislature to approve any taxes on the people. In other words, Henry was taking the side of full democracy rather than insignificant representation in a national legislature that still held plenary powers over the colonies. It is this critical and similar distinction that current use of the phrase "taxation without representation" obscures.

By the time the Declaration of Independence was written, America had come cleanly down on the side of full democracy as opposed to mere representation. The only mention of taxes in the Declaration of Independence attacks the crown for "imposing taxes on us without our consent," something Congress can still do even if it grants DC representation.

A far better slogan would be "no taxation without democracy" or, better still, "statehood now"


The mechanics of statehood are relatively simple. They have been invoked 37 times since the first 13 colonies formed their union. A territory must petition the Congress, draft a constitution with a republican form of government, Congress must approve by a simple majority, and the President must sign the bill.

A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of Congress as well the support of three-quarters of the state legislatures. In other words, 13 states can veto a constitutional amendment. The last time a voting rights amendment was circulated, less than half the required states approved it within the seven year time limit.

A constitutional amendment may be repealed. Statehood cannot be repealed.


The Constitution states the upper size limit of the district over which it has power; it does not state the lower limit. The size of the District has been changed in the past, most significantly when the Virginia portion was retroceded to that state. DC statehood would require a simple reduction of the size of the federal district to an unpopulated area running, say, from the Capitol along the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial.


Far from it. We've created a new state 85% as frequently as we have elected a new president. In fact, it will become increasingly impractical for the Senate to remain our most segregated and unrepresentative legislature, one which would be subject to court-ordered bussing if it were a school system; sued under civil rights laws if it were a corporation; and from which, if it were a private club, one would want to resign before running for public office.

The Senate also discriminates against cities and the largest states. For example, there are nine states with 18 senators that have in aggregate less population than New York City. There are 16 states with 32 senators with less population than all of New York state. There are 21 states with 42 senators (almost a majority) that together have less population than California with its two senators.

In fact, the malapportionment of the Senate is perhaps the most important, undiscussed issue in the country today for there is hardly a matter of political importance that would not be affected if that body were to reflect 21st century, rather than 19th century, demographics.

Further, in not too many years, white Americans will cease to be in the majority. Even leaving moral questions aside, how much longer will it be politically practical to tell blacks and latinos that the rules can't be changed to let them into the Senate in some reasonable number?


Sam Smith

In 1775 Patrick Henry stood up in the Virginia House of Burgesses and said, "Give me liberty, or give me death." A version of this sentiment would later be delivered as a toast written by General John Stark of New Hampshire for a Revolutionary War veteran's reunion in 1809: "Live free or die." Stark, as a young man, had been captured by the Indians who made him run the gauntlet. He did so using a long pole with which he attacked Indians swinging at him with sticks, allegedly yelling "I will kiss all your women," although the phrase may have been slightly bowdlerized by timid historians. The Indians eventually tired of Stark and accepted a ransom of $103 to get rid of him. By the time of the veteran's reunion, Stark was 81 and too infirm to attend, but he wrote a letter telling his former comrades that they had "taught the enemies of liberty that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves..."

Noting that "the lamp of life is almost spent," and that he will remember them "until I go to the country from whence no traveler returns. I must soon receive marching orders," Stark closes with, "Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils." In 1945 the phrase will become the state motto of New Hampshire and later placed on NH license plates.

The colonial capital of Washington has placed part of another motto on its license plates - "Taxation Without Representation" - but as is often the case in this fair city, it has both the history and the politics wrong.

The politics are wrong because DC's lack of congressional representation is far less critical to its well-being than its lack of self-government. Even with congressional representation, the Senate would still get to decide not only the city's budget and tax rates, but all manner of other matters including who gets to have an abortion and whether popular referenda will be observed. The colony of Algeria, for example, had representation in the French National Assembly but decided to go for liberty or death as the more workable alternative. Over the years, each time that DC citizens have begun agitating for equal status with other Americans, the local establishment has come up with another drive for congressional representation.

Unfortunately, a good many decent hearted citizens of DC are fooled by the representation diversion, and go around with a slogan on their car that few realize actually was a concern of the pre-revolutionary mercantile class, but was soon replaced by the more far reaching and vigorous sentiments of people like Patrick Henry.

The slogan stemmed from a major complaint of the business and upper classes against the British crown. Historian Gary Nash found by studying tax lists that 5 percent of Boston's citizens controlled close to half the city's wealth. It was this group that both Nash and Howard Zinn say were most affected by the Stamp Act. Much like corporate mantras of today, such as "free markets," the "no taxation" slogan has gained a currency far broader than its applicability.

While New England businessmen were seeking representation in the English parliament, Henry was speaking of the right of the Virginia legislature to approve its own taxes. In other words, Henry was taking the side of full democracy rather than accepting insignificant representation in a national legislature that still held plenary powers over Virginia. It is this critical distinction that current use of the phrase "taxation without representation" obscures.

Besides, Henry, who was described once as "a Quaker in religion but the very Devil in politics" had more immediate concerns, such as the removal of gun powder from the local magazine by the royal governor. Henry used his speech to help organize the militias to get the powder back.

In fact, there are relatively few contemporaneous references to the phrase "no taxation without representation." It appears to have been first raised by James Otis in 1764 and then appears in a few pamphlets between 1765 and 1768. But in the latter year came a far more important document, a letter circulated by John Hancock and a few others calling on citizens to assemble at a town meeting. It stated "Taxes equally detrimental to the Commercial interests of the Parent Country and her Colonies, are imposed upon the People, without their Consent." In other words, representation was no longer the issue, but rather self-government. The town meeting was held at Faneuil Hall over five days, with 96 towns involved.

By the time the Declaration of Independence was written, America had come cleanly down on the side of full democracy as opposed to mere representation. The only mention of taxes in the Declaration of Independence attacks the crown for "imposing taxes on us without our consent," something Congress can still do even if it grants DC representation within its hallowed halls. Meanwhile, residents of the capital colony drive around paying unintentional honor to the somewhat self-serving desires of Boston's pre-revolutionary elite instead of the demands for true liberty offered by the likes of Patrick Henry and John Stark.

[Reprinted from an edition around the time the license plates were first introduced]


Samuel Jordan, December 2006

As an undergrad, I boxed at Georgetown University for the 1789 Club. My coach was the Foods Services Manager, Marty Gallagher, who prided himself on being number four to Joe Louis in his prime. Big Marty, the classic Irish brawler, helped me learn the difference between a jab and a knockout punch. The principle was fundamental. A jab is delivered with the arm, shoulder - all upper body - ending with a snap of the wrist. A punch, by contrast, begins with the feet, travels through the legs and is capped with a forceful, whip-like pivot of the hips. Where the former might sting, the latter disables an opponent. The difference can be up to eight hundred foot-pounds of force - or that between drumming one's fingers on the table and jack hammering through concrete. A punch from Big Marty was not a pat on the back. Even the recollection is painful.

H.R. 5388 was a limp-wrist jab delivering nothing of substance whatsoever for residents of the District of Columbia. The bill would have granted the District a voting seat in the House of Representatives and an additional voting seat in the House for the state of Utah. On the surface, a voting seat in the House sounds impressive, but it was the bill's lack of empowerment for the people of the District that exposed the proposed legislation as one of the most cynical legislative scams in recent memory.

An immensely expensive lobbying campaign was mounted for H.R. 5388 although the bill did not offer local control of the budget, judiciary, legislation nor a fair payment in lieu of taxes to the District for hosting the federal establishment at a considerable cost - about $1.9 billion per year. What is the advantage of a seat in the House when everything that matters would remain under the control of Congress? When did democracy not confer autonomy? Isn't that the point?

"Embarrassing" may be the only way to describe our non-voting Delegate's desperate, last day, last minute appeal to the Senators of Utah and Connecticut. They were asked to prevail upon the outgoing leaders of the House and Senate to halt the lame-duck session's expiration in order to pass a bill that had not even been presented for any meaningful discussion accessible to the people of the District. While we're at it, let's overlook the required Congressional conference and fiscal impact statement as did the bill's sponsors.

Even if one could hold his nose to the rights by race "balancing" mechanism in H.R. 5388 and its Electoral College flim-flam, it delivered nothing of value to the people of the District useful in the conduct of our daily affairs. Instead, it offered second-class, symbolic representation and no accompanying power of enfranchisement. All jab, no punch.

[Sam Jordon is Special Project Coordinator for the Stand Up for Democracy in DC Coalition]