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Finding Solutions to Taxation without Representation

By the

January 10, 2002


Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution reads, “The Congress shall have power ? To exercise exclusive Legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding 10 miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States ? ”
In March 2001, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) simultaneously introduced the No Taxation Without Representation Act 2001 into the House and Senate. The bill’s intent is to gain Congressional representation for residents of Washington, D.C. Almost all D.C. residents support this goal, yet there is heavy disagreement about the bill among supporters of representation for D.C. Why?

The Balance

The political relationship between the District and the federal government has been characterized by constant change throughout American history. After the District was carved from Maryland and Virginia in 1790, residents of the new city continued to vote in whatever states they had been residents of before the change. This continued until 1800, when Congress voted to end representation for D.C. residents.
In 1871, a D.C. government was established, including a governor and a legislature. When that system proved corrupt, Congress retracted the city’s right to self-government. From 1874 until 1974, the District had no elected mayor or city council. Instead, the president appointed a three-person commission to run the city. The Home Rule Act reinstated the mayor and city council in 1974. Meanwhile, the 23rd Amendment granted city residents the right to vote for president in 1961. Not until 1967 could residents elect a school board.
There have been several major pushes to earn representation for D.C. residents. In 1978, Congress passed the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, which would have granted the District full representation in Congress. However, constitutional amendments require ratification by three-quarters of the states within seven years of the Congressional vote. By 1985 only 16 states had approved the amendment; 38 were needed. In 1993, the House voted on a statehood bill. The bill was defeated, 277 to 153.
Currently, the District enjoys a certain degree of home rule. The mayor, City Council, school board and other standard positions are all elected. The city draws up its own budget, although its autonomy is severely limited by the requirement that the budget be approved by Congress before any money is spent. Congress often uses that power to prevent Washington from following through on specific policies. For years, budget riders have prevented the District from implementing City Council resolutions to provide for needle exchange programs and the medicinal use of marijuana. In 1992, the City Council approved a domestic partnership benefits plan for city employees. The most recent budget, which was approved in December, was the first to allow funding for the program. But that budget also includes a setback for the city’s rights?Congress attached a rider preventing city government from using any of its money to promote or campaign for D.C. statehood or representation.
A partial measure of representation has been granted to D.C. residents in the form of a non-voting member of the House. The position was created in 1871, abolished in 1874, then reinstated in 1970. The current delegate is Eleanor Holmes Norton. While she cannot vote on legislation, she can speak on the floor of the House.
The District has also had a “shadow delegation” to Congress since 1990. States seeking admission to the Union often elected shadow senators and representatives to campaign in Washington for statehood. Once the states were admitted, those persons would usually assume the seats to which they had been unofficially been elected. The shadow delegation is not officially affiliated with Congress, and its offices are in a District-owned office building, not a Congressional building.

The Major Participants

DC Vote is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating Americans about the political status of Washington, D.C. and its residents. Amy Slemmer, a self-described “outraged resident,” is DC Vote’s current executive director. “We work on educating the public and on civic engagement,” she explained. According to Slemmer, DC Vote focuses on working with D.C. residents through Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, neighborhood associations and other groups. “We want local people to get involved in this movement,” she said. Due to the issue’s unique nature, few locals actually disagree with DC Vote’s goals. “There is almost unanimous issue agreement. [In] grassroots politics, you look for issue agreement,” she noted. However, simple agreement is not enough. “The challenge is that to effect the political change that we need, we have to have outsiders weighing in and convincing members of Congress that this matters to them.” As Washington is a city of only 570,000 residents, gathering enough power to lobby the rest of the country is a major challenge.
The DC Statehood Green Party, the local chapter of the Green Party, is the chief political party devoted to D.C. statehood. The DC Statehood Party was founded in 1970, and merged with the D.C. Green Party in 1999. Michael Piacsek, a Washington labor lawyer, is the chair of the party’s statehood committee. The role didn’t even exist before last year when Piacsek moved back to D.C. from New Orleans and requested that a statehood committee be formed. Piacsek emphasized Congress’ budgetary control over the city. “We aren’t allowed to spend a cent of our own money unless Congress says it is okay for us to do so,” he explained.
Paul Strauss has been a shadow senator since 1996. He emphasized the importance of granting D.C. statehood, not just representation. “The District of Columbia is a separate place. The state line that separates the District from Maryland has been in place since 1790,” he said. He also noted that Washington has more citizens Wyoming, a state since 1890.
The rider attached to this year’s budget preventing the District from spending funds to campaign for representation or statehood is aimed squarely at the shadow delegation. While the rider does allow for elected officials such as Strauss, it does prevent him from having a paid office staff. Strauss will be relying on unpaid interns to staff the entire office. He remains upbeat, despite Congress’ threatening moves. “If I wasn’t making an impact in my job, my enemies in Congress wouldn’t want to stick it to me,” said Strauss. His office plans on challenging the budget rider.
Mark Plotkin is a political commentator on WAMU, Washington’s public radio station. Through his program, “The D.C. Politics Hour,” he is one of the most visible and outspoken proponents of the right to representation for D.C. residents. While Plotkin is personally in favor of statehood, he feels that representation is a more viable goal. “It is indefensible to be against representation,” he said. “[President] George Bush is against any form of representation. He should be embarrassed that he has that view,” said Plotkin. Having achieved representation, the District would probably be in a stronger position to campaign for statehood. “I think representation is a way-station to statehood. A sort of holding pattern,” he said. Above all, Plotkin emphasized the importance of representation in any form. “It is absolutely un-American to deprive residents of the nation’s capital of representation in their national legislature,” he said.

Why?

There are an infinite number of ways to explain or understand why Washington residents are still denied representation. Some have a historical perspective. “It’s a terrible accident of history that has never been remedied,” said Norton.
For many, the issue has far more to do with politics. The District’s overwhelmingly Democratic makeup leads many to assume that it would be a bastion of Democratic support. For some Republicans, the prospect of two additional Democratic senators seems to be reason enough to avoid granting D.C. representation. President Bush has made his views rather clear; according to Strauss, “When asked about voting rights for the District, [President Bush] said, ‘I’m against the senators,’” indicating that his chief concern is limiting Democratic power in the Senate. Upon taking office, President Bush also had the “No Taxation Without Representation” license plates removed from his limousine and replaced with blank plates. The city began issuing the plates in 2000, and President Clinton had a set placed on the limousine to signify his support for congressional representation.
Slemmer feels that politicians have the wrong perspective. “I think that members of Congress make an assumption about who the District would elect, and turn it into a purely partisan political fight,” she said. “But the issue is a matter of democracy, not partisan politics. It denigrates the vote when members of Congress deny us a vote based on who they think we would send.”
However, the Republican Party is far from staunchly opposing D.C.’s rights. In the 1978 representation vote, many prominent Republicans voted for representation, including Bob Dole and Barry Goldwater. President Nixon also voiced his support, and the 1976 Republican Party National Platform included support for representation.
Other reasons have been proposed. For Strauss, the issue is more complex. “Twenty years ago, 30 years ago, racism had a lot to do with not only keeping D.C. out of Congress, but keeping the city from running itself,” he said. “Race is now a backhanded whisper,” he explained. “All of the territories and colonies of the United States that lack statehood rights are majority non-white,” he said. But the opposition is not forthcoming. “Are you asking me if anyone would dare say on the House floor that D.C. is too black to be a state? No.”

Solutions?

Plotkin feels that District residents and officials have to take a more active role in the fight for representation. “We have a mayor who, I think, views himself as a colonial administrator. He doesn’t challenge the prevailing status quo,” said Plotkin, who feels that acts of civil disobedience undertaken by District residents should “rise to the level of personal insult.” Plotkin also criticized Holmes’ work as delegate to the house. “We have a congresswoman who I don’t think does a good job of recruiting new allies,” he said.
For Piacsek, the movement simply requires some momentum. “I guess it’s a circular, self-defeating situation,” he said. “We have no one to vote on our behalf. There’s no incentive for Congress to change the status quo. I don’t put this down to any grand conspiracy of any sort. I think its much more a grand issue of inertia.” Regarding how to solve the problem, his answer was straightforward. “It’s up to the people of D.C. to demand their rights.”

No taxation without representation

Norton and Lieberman’s No Taxation bill is the most visible current effort to gain representation. If passed, the bill will excuse District residents from paying federal income taxes until they are granted representation, giving Congress a strong incentive to give District residents representatives. Unlike the 1978 representation push, the No Taxation Act is not a constitutional amendment, which may give it more potential for support. According to Norton, hearings will be held on the bill in both houses over the next few months.
Regarding Norton and Lieberman’s bill, Statehood Green Party statehood committee chair Michael Piacsek was blunt. “We oppose the bill,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything to actually advance statehood, or even to advance representation for the District.” In fact, his party feels that the bill will work against the District’s best interests. “What it does is create a tax-free zone for multimillionaires wanting to avoid taxes. That would probably have the effect of driving out the poor and middle class in the city.” With D.C.’s housing market already undergoing gentrification-induced spasms, further changes could be devastating.
Plotkin also expressed criticism for the bill’s tax code changes. “I think the bill is flawed,” he said. He favors a bill that simply grants representation.
Norton was quick to defend the bill. She explained that the bill was written in terms of taxation and representation to “put it in [Congress’] face.” While the bill does set up a choice between the withholding of representation and the payment of federal income taxes, Norton expressed disdain for concerns that Congress would choose not to grant representation if the bill were passed. “The point here is to get voting rights,” she explained. “You have to be living on another planet to think that this Congress will relieve us of two billion [dollars] in income taxes.”



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