INSIDE WASHINGTON/Congress reconsiders D.C. representation
Recent legislation introduced in Congress would exempt District of Columbia residents from federal income tax until the city of 570,000-plus obtains full voting representation in Congress. The largely symbolic threat is one of several tactics that D.C. city leaders, activists and supporters have employed in their effort to gain voting representation in Congress.
“We have a whole group of people here in Washington who are paying taxes to the federal government and are not represented,” says Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman (D — Conn.), whose committee is charged with overseeing the District of Columbia. Lieberman is the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D — D.C.) has authored the House version that would withhold $2 billion in income tax revenue annually from the federal treasury until the city receives voting representation in Congress.
The effort is supported by D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, and it drew the strong support of fellow mayors attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in June. In 2001 alone, resolutions expressing support for D.C.’s bid have been passed by the city councils of Chicago and Philadelphia, as well as by the National League of Cities and the National Conference of Black Mayors.
“District of Columbia residents have the burdens and obligations of every citizen of the United States and therefore deserve the same rights and representation,” says NLC Executive Director Don Borut.
Proponents of full congressional representation for the nation’s capital point out that more people reside within the District’s 61 square miles than live in the entire state of Wyoming, which, with its population of about 500,000, is represented by two senators and one congresswoman. In addition to D.C.’s muted voice in the halls of Congress, the mayor and city council must have their budget approved by Congress even though the city is charged with providing the same services that any large metropolis offers. The mayor and city councilors also face the risk of having their local laws overturned by riders on the District of Columbia Appropriations bill if a member of Congress does not agree with the law.
“Frankly, managing a $5 billion organization and planning for the well-being of almost 600,000 residents, and almost two million daily visitors is enormously complicated by excessive congressional oversight,” says Gregory McCarthy, director of D.C.’s Office of Policy and Evaluation. “No other mayor, governor, city council or legislature could possibly imagine trying to govern under those circumstances.”
As it now stands, Norton is able to speak from the House floor and vote in committee, but she is not allowed to vote once legislation reaches the floor. In the Senate, the city has no representation.
Efforts to give the District full voting rights will be difficult. Because the District is heavily Democratic, President Bush has expressed opposition to the proposal, and House Republicans rejected the idea of giving Norton limited voting rights at the beginning of the 107th Congress.
Obtaining full voting representation for the District has always been a struggle. In 1978, the House and Senate approved a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the District to have full representation but, only 16 states, 22 short of the 38 needed to ratify the measure, approved it. In 1993, the House rejected a bill that would have made the District the nation’s 51st state, and the Supreme Court ruled last year that D.C. does not have a constitutional right to have a voting representative.
Congressional Democrats are on D.C.’s side. When they were vaulted into the Senate majority earlier this year, new Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D — S.D.) indicated that the Senate would re-examine the matter.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.