10 Myths about the District of Columbia
Developed by Mark David Richards, PhD
1. DC citizens enjoy the same constitutional rights as citizens who live in states.
The Constitution, until amended or until DC becomes a state or part of a state, gives Congress exclusive legislative authority over DC in Article I, Section 8, Clause 17. Over DC's 200-year history, Congress has passed laws to modify the local governance structure numerous times. In 1973, Congress granted DC limited Home Rule authority. Congress oversees DC through four Congressional subcommittees, four committees, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the President. Congress not only reviews and can modify DC's local budget, but it can also annul any law it does not agree with. Therefore, DC does not have true local self-government. In addition, the President appoints DC's local judges and is in charge of DC's court and prison system. The federal government prosecutes most crimes, not DC. DC 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. DC 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 DC 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 DC residents vote in the state from which they had previously belonged (Maryland and Virginia) until their population grew, at which time Congress would give DC 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 citizens.
3. DC citizens pay no federal or state taxes-U.S. taxpayers pay for nearly everything.
DC is often accused of being served on a silver platter, and residents sometimes wish this were true! But here are the facts: DC 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 DC to pay for DC's municipal budget-this process causes some to mistakenly believe the money is derived from Congress. In 1997, because DC receives no income from a state, Congress agreed to pay for 70% of DC's Medicaid costs ($168 million) and DC's prisons and courts (about $300 million). Congress restricts DC'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 DC but live just miles away in the states of Virginia and Maryland from contributing even five percent or less of their state taxes to DC. This results in a windfall for those states, but a loss to DC of a billion dollars a year. The result is higher local taxes on businesses and individuals. In addition, DC citizens pay full federal taxes - they pay higher per capita taxes than all 50 states.
4. People who live in DC 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 DC issues. Few DC residents have privileges based on their proximity to power.
5. Everyone from DC 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 DC are permanent residents (nearly 600,000 people). There are over 120 neighborhoods that residents call home. Over fifty percent of residents have lived in DC twenty years or more.
6. Washington, DC is just a city, so it can't function like a state.
Before Washington City, Washington County, and Georgetown were merged into Washington, District of Columbia in 1871, this was accurate. But today, DC is most accurately described as a District or city-state - not a city, county, or state. DC 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. DC operates a District police force, a District school system, and DC is treated as a state in over 500 federal laws. DC 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. DC is too small to have equal rights.
DC is 63 square miles, the size of Paris, France. Like eight states, DC's population is under one million (572,059 in 2000). DC has a larger population than Wyoming (493,782 in 2000). 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 53 Representatives while Wyoming has only one. While the states of Virginia and Maryland, whose representatives sit on DC's Congressional oversight committees, have a combined total of four Senators and nineteen Representatives, DC has no voting members of Congress.
8. DC citizens do not reflect the culture, values, or attitudes of the fifty states.
Although DC 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. DC is treated differently because it's the capital of the nation and 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, DC'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. violates DC citizens' rights under the ICCPR.
10. DC citizens haven't worked hard enough to change their status.
Many DC 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 DC the right to Presidential electors (equal to the smallest state) passed Congress and was approved by the states. And since 1969, many DC citizens have worked to make the non-federal area of DC the state of New Columbia.