Mark David Richards
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10 Myths About the District of Columbia
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1. D.C. citizens enjoy the same constitutional rights as citizens
who live in states. The Constitution, until amended or until D.C.
becomes a state or part of a state, gives Congress exclusive legislative
authority over D.C. in Article I, Section 8, Clause 17. Over D.C.’s
200-year history, Congress has passed laws to modify the local governance
structure numerous times. In 1973, Congress granted D.C. limited Home Rule
authority. Congress oversees D.C. through four Congressional
subcommittees, four committees, the House of Representatives, the Senate,
and the President. Congress not only reviews and can modify D.C.’s local
budget, but it can also annul any law it does not agree with. Therefore,
D.C. does not have true local self-government. In addition, the President
appoints D.C.’s local judges and is in charge of D.C.’s court and
prison system. The federal government prosecutes most crimes, not D.C.
D.C. has been denied these Constitutional rights which are guaranteed to
citizens living in states: equal representation in the Senate under the 17th
Amendment and House of Representatives under Article 1, the right to a
republican form of government under Article 4, the right to all powers and
privileges under the 9th and 10th amendments, and
equal protection under the 14th Amendment. D.C. citizens were
prohibited from voting in Presidential elections until the 23rd
amendment to the Constitutional was ratified in 1961. They have never been
permitted full voting rights in Congress.
2. The founders meant to take away the rights of D.C. citizens. Not
really. Federalists argued that exclusive legislative jurisdiction over
the seat of government was needed so the federal government would not be
dependent on a state for security in case of mutiny or disruption. Samuel
Osgood, a member of the Board of Treasury, said, "It has cost me a
sleepless night to find out the most obnoxious part of the proposed plan,
and I have finally fixed upon the exclusive legislation in the Ten Miles
Square. What an inexhaustible fountain of corruption are we opening?"
James Madison argued that the Constitution should be adapted despite
concerns because District citizens "will have had their voice in the
election of the government which is to exercise authority over them; as a
municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own
suffrages, will of course be allowed them." Alexander Hamilton
proposed an idea that wasn’t adopted—to let D.C. residents vote in the
state from which they had previously belonged (Maryland and Virginia)
until their population grew, at which time Congress would give D.C. voting
representation in that body. The historical record indicates that the
founders were concerned about the rights of District citizens and left
open the possibility that future generations could address the inequity.
However, at the time, getting approval for the federal Constitution was
more important than assuring national representation for District
3. D.C. citizens pay no federal or state taxes—U.S. taxpayers pay
for nearly everything. D.C. is often accused of being served on a
silver platter, and residents sometimes wish this were true! But here are
the facts: D.C. citizens pay "statelike," or District taxes, to
the tune of $5 billion per year. This money is sent to Congress, and is
appropriated back to D.C. to pay for D.C.’s municipal budget—this
process causes some to mistakenly believe the money is derived from
Congress. In 1997, because D.C. receives no income from a state, Congress
agreed to pay for 70% of D.C.’s Medicaid costs ($168 million) and D.C.’s
prisons and courts (about $300 million). Congress restricts D.C.’s
ability to raise revenues. It pays no taxes on the land it uses or
exempts, exempts itself from a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes), and
imposes added requirements on public services, such as the police force.
Congress exempts those who work in D.C. but live just miles away in the
states of Virginia and Maryland from contributing even five percent or
less of their state taxes to D.C. This results in a windfall for those
states, but a loss to D.C. of a billion dollars a year. The result is
higher local taxes on businesses and individuals. In addition, D.C.
citizens pay full federal taxes—they pay higher per capita taxes than 49
of 50 states.
4. People who live in D.C. have more influence because they are
closer to the President and Congress. Perhaps in the early days this
statement was plausible. But in the age of jet travel and cellular
communications, proximity does not mean access. Most federal officials
know more about and are more interested in their own constituents, as well
as national and International affairs than in D.C. issues. Few D.C.
residents have privileges based on their proximity to power.
5. Everyone from D.C. is from somewhere else, so everyone can vote
in the state where they’re from. Federal officials are temporary
residents, from one of the fifty states or from the Territories. They
represent a small proportion of the population. They vote and pay taxes in
their home states. However, most people who live in D.C. are permanent
residents (nearly 600,000 people). There are over 120 neighborhoods that
residents call home. Over fifty percent of residents have lived in D.C.
twenty years or more.
6. Washington, D.C. is a city. Before Washington City,
Washington County, and Georgetown were merged into Washington, District of
Columbia in 1871, this was accurate. But today, D.C. is most accurately
described as a District or city-state—not a city, county, or state. D.C.
is responsible for most functions of a city, county, and state. For
example, most states are responsible for driver licensure, vehicle
inspections, occupational licensure, insurance and securities regulation,
liquor control, consumer affairs, workers’ and unemployment
compensation, food and drug inspection, utility regulation, professional
licensure, lottery, and weights and measures. D.C. operates a District
police force, a District school system, and D.C. is treated as a state in
over 500 federal laws. D.C. has its own legal code, like states. The
District’s mayor has much in common with Governors, and Council members
have much in common with state legislators.
7. D.C. is too small to have equal rights. D.C. is 63 square
miles, the size of Paris, France. Like eight states, D.C.’s population
is under one million (570,000). D.C. has a larger population than Wyoming.
Size has never been the main issue. An early compromise on this issue was
that all states—regardless of size—would have equal representation in
the Senate, whereas in the House of Representatives, representation would
be determined by population size. Today, for example, California and
Wyoming have two Senators each, but California has 52 Representatives
while Wyoming has only one. While the states of Virginia and Maryland,
whose representatives sit on D.C.’s Congressional oversight committees,
have a combined total of four Senators and 19 Representatives, D.C. has no
voting members of Congress.
8. D.C. citizens do not reflect the culture, values, or attitudes of
the fifty states. Although D.C. citizens have a unique culture that
has developed as a result of their unique circumstances, and their area is
more urbanized than some areas, they are similar to citizens elsewhere—they
work, raise families, attend church or synagogue, are active in cultural
and civic groups, and try to make social progress.
9. D.C. is treated differently because it is the capital of the
nation and D.C. belongs to all Americans. The area known as the
National Capital Service Area, a very small portion of the District, is
home to Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, and the many
wonderful Smithsonian museums. However, D.C.’s 120 neighborhoods belong
to the people who live there—they care about their homes. For
comparison, the federal government owns 88% of Nevada, 68% of Utah, 67% of
Arkansas, 65% of Idaho, 56% of Oregon, and 50% of California. That land
also belongs to all Americans. But citizens of those states retain rights.
In fact, of all the capitals of the world where the country claims to be a
democracy, U.S. is the only one where its capital district citizens cannot
vote in the national legislature. In 1992, the U.S. Congress ratified and
the President signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR). Article 25 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to equal
suffrage and participation in national government through elected
representatives. The U.S. is in violation of District citizens’ rights
under the ICCPR.
10. D.C. citizens haven’t worked hard enough to change their
status. Many D.C. citizens have worked since 1800 to achieve political
rights, but there have been formidable obstacles. Each generation has
written letters, protested, filed lawsuits, and attempted to change its
status. Before the Civil War, citizens of Alexandria City tried to
retrocede back to the state they belonged to before they were made part of
the District—they and the southern portion of the District succeeded in
becoming part of Virginia in 1846. Since the Civil War, there has been
little interest in merging the remaining land to Maryland. But citizens
continued to try to pass a Constitutional amendment for equal voting
rights for President, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. In
1961, a Constitutional amendment granting D.C. the right to Presidential
electors (equal to the smallest state) passed Congress and was approved by
the states. And since 1969, many D.C. citizens have worked to make the
non-federal area of D.C. the state of New Columbia.