Arguments for and Against Full Congressional Voting Representation for the District of Columbia
Washingtonians share all the responsibilities of other Americans: they pay federal income taxes, they defend their country in times of war, and they serve on federal juries. Ironically, people living in the "capital" of the free world are denied one right that is at the very foundation of a democracy: the right to shape the laws under which they live.
Our Founders fought the War for Independence to end "taxation without representation." The time has come to fulfill the promise of American democracy by treating Washingtonians equally and giving them full voting representation in the U.S. Congress.
1. Bring equality to the District of Columbia.
DC Residents fulfill all the responsibilities of citizenship, but they do not share all the rights their fellow Americans have.
Residents of the District of Columbia pay the second highest per capita federal income taxes in the country.
District residents are required to register with the U.S. Selective Services and have served to protect America's democracy in every war since the War for Independence:
- DC had 635 casualties in World War I - more than three states
- DC had 3,575 casualties in World War II - more than four states
- DC had 547 casualties in the Korean War - more than eight states
- DC had 243 casualties in the Vietnam War - more than ten states
The people of Washington, DC are required to serve on federal juries to uphold laws under which they must live, but for which they had no vote in their creation.
2. DC residents are denied the promise of American democracy.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Black put it best in his 1964 opinion in Wesberry v. Sanders when he said:
"No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined."
3. Democracy must be brought to the capital of the United States before we try to take democracy abroad.
The United States is actively promoting democracy abroad, but we deny democracy to the American's living in the nation's capital. The fact that we are the only capital of a democracy in the world that does not have full voting representation is an international embarrassment. The current Administration has made it clear that bringing democracy to Iraq is a post-war priority. While the United States and coalition forces work to establish democracy for Iraqis, the residents of Washington, DC, have not had representation in the U.S. Congress for over 200 years.
4. The disenfranchisement of DC is the left over business of the civil rights movement.
Denial of representation to the people of the District of Columbia is seen by some as discrimination against African-Americans and other minority groups. According to the U.S. Census 2000, the population of Washington, DC, is 60.0% "black or African-American" (the national average is 12.3%), and 9.3% other minority groups. No other jurisdiction in the United States has a majority of the population that is black or African-American, and there are currently no black or African-American U.S. Senators. While partisan considerations are certainly in part responsible for the denial of democracy to District residents, there are people who believe that racial considerations also play an important part in the continued disenfranchisement of DC's residents.
5. The District's population is close to that of eight states.
The population of Wyoming (493,782) is nearly 100,000 less than that of the District of Columbia (572,059). DC is close in population to six other states and has had a population as large as 800,000. DC should have the same proportional representation in Congress. [Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 1950 and Census 2000]
6. The U.S. Constitution is silent on the issue of representation for DC.
The U.S. Constitution does not disenfranchise the residents of the nation's capital, and it is unlikely that the Framers intended to deny the basic democratic rights, for which they had just fought a war, to the people living in the area that would become Washington, DC. The U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. Congress control over the land that would become the nation's capital, per Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, to "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such capital district…as may…become the seat of the Government of the United States." This clause does not state that the residents of the capital district should not be represented in the Congress that has power over them. The Framers added this clause to the Constitution in response to a siege laid against the capital building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they were meeting to write the Constitution. The siege had been orchestrated by Pennsylvania militia for unpaid wages against the Pennsylvania State Legislature, who was meeting in the same building on the second floor. The Congress did not feel that they should be dependent on any state for protection in case of a mutiny. The Federalist Papers make it clear that the lack of attention in the Constitution to DC's situation is an oversight.
7. Denying DC residents voting representation violates international law.
As a member state of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States agrees to uphold certain international laws as laid out in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (ADRDM). Later this year, the OAS will issue its report that the United States violates Articles 2 and 20 of the ADRDM with specific regard to the residents of the District of Columbia.
- Article 2 of the American Declaration states that "All persons are equal before the law and have the rights and duties established in this Declaration, without distinction as to race, sex, language, creed or any other factor."
- Article 20 of the American Declaration states that "Every person having legal capacity is entitled to participate in the government of his country, directly or through his representatives, and to take part in popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, and shall be honest, periodic and free."
The United States further violates Articles 25 and 26 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
- Article 25 states that "Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without unreasonable restrictions: (a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors."
- Article 26 of the ICCPR states that "All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
8. The next chapter in the voting rights movement is DC.
Equal suffrage has been given to women; African-Americans and other minorities; and young people. DC residents are the only class of tax-paying citizens who continue to be denied full voting representation in Congress. Over the course of the history of the United States of America, the franchise has been broadened to encompass the principal of 'one person - one vote.' Several amendments to the U.S. Constitution and numerous pieces of legislation have helped to expand our democracy and the strengthen the inalienable right to vote.
- In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and states that "No state shall make or enforce law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
- In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and states that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
- In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and states that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
- In 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified to give District residents the right to vote for President and Vice President for the first time, but the Amendment limits their rights to those of the least populous state. The Amendment states that "A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, but in no event more than the least populous state; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the states, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a state; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment."
- In 1965, the Federal Voting Rights Act was passed to strengthen the 14th and 15th Amendments and give true access to voting for Americans of color.
- In 1971, the 26 Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and states that "The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age."
9. Denial of voting representation hurts DC economically.
Without any voting representation in Congress and without true local autonomy, the business community of the District of Columbia is powerless to affect the laws and policies that affect business and economic growth.
- In May 2003, the Tax Foundation released a report rating the best and worst business tax climates in the United States. The District of Columbia ranked 47 out of 51 in terms of business tax climates. This poor ranking is due in large part to the gross structural imbalances that exist in DC leading to high business and property taxes, as well as the lack of a voice in the business community in policies and regulations that govern DC businesses. [The Tax Foundation, The State Business Tax Climate Index, May 2003]
- Also in May 2003, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a report indicating that a serious structural deficit exists in the District of Columbia. With a very limited tax-base, without the authority to tax 66% or the income that is earned within the borders of the District of Columbia, and without the ability to raise revenue from property taxes on over 50% of the land in the capital, the District of Columbia faces a $470 million imbalance annually. The report indicates that this imbalance exists primarily because of "factors beyond the direct control of District officials." [GAO-03-666, May 2003]
- The delayed passage of DC's budget annually (on average, DC's budget is passed three months after the beginning of the fiscal year) affects the city's abilities to provide much needed services to the young, the needy and the infirm. As a result DC has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country and increased costs to provide health care for the indigent. [GAO-03-666, May 2003 and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]
- Unlike their counterparts in the states, businesses, universities, and others are unable to secure congressionally-mandated financial support. They are also greatly weakened in their ability to protect their interests (e.g. when the federal government wants to move an office, issue a regulation, or pass tax policy) because DC's Delegate to Congress does not have a vote to trade in the U.S. House, and DC does not even have a voice in the U.S. Senate.
(See the GAO and Structural Imbalance appendix for more information on this topic)
10. Congress can overrule locally passed laws that affect DC and its residents.
Without representation in Congress, the wishes and needs of the residents of the District of Columbia are often neglected, ignored or overturned.
- In spite of overwhelming research that demonstrates the efficacy of needle-exchange programs and in spite of overwhelming support from voters in all eight wards in the city supporting such programs, people at-risk of HIV infection cannot be served properly by the city because Congress denies the District the ability to operate a needle-exchange program.
- Members of Congress often impose their "pet-projects" on the city against the will of local authorities and residents, costing DC money that could be spent providing services and care for DC residents.
- Congress denied the District even the permission to count the votes cast in a community-sponsored referendum on medical-marijuana in the 1990's, and more recently the city was denied the ability to implement such a program in spite of a second community-sponsored referendum supporting the issue.
(See the DC's Budget and the U.S. Congress appendix for more information on this topic)
Arguments Against Full Congressional Voting Representation for the District of Columbia
1. Voting representation in the Congress for DC residents would be unconstitutional and inconsistent with the Framers' intent to limit voting to states.
The exclusive legislative authority given to Congress by the District Clause (which grants Congress the power "[t]o exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever" over the District) may not exceed the Constitution's express structural or substantive limitations. The plain text of Article I of the Constitution limits congressional voting representation to state residents. Article I, Section 3 provides that "[t]he Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State". Article I, Section 2 provides that the House of Representatives be "composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States." The Framers' language and purposes make it clear that the representatives provided for in Article I would be the exclusive legislators of the federal government. A plain reading of the Constitution indicates that the Constitution limits congressional voting representation to state residents.
2. DC already has more representation than other states because Congress is charged with legislating on DC matters.
Congress has exclusive authority over the District of Columbia. Therefore, the District is represented by all 100 Senators and 435 Representatives in Congress.
3. DC, as our Nation's capital, belongs to all Americans, and, therefore, should be represented in the Congress by all Americans.
If the District were to have its own voting representation, all other Americans would lose their authority over the affairs of the Nation's Capital. Because the District is supposed to be the Capital City, not an independent jurisdiction, this would not be fair.
4. DC citizens already have more legislative access than other Americans because Congress convenes in DC.
Geographically speaking, residents of the District have far more access than other Americans. After all, members of Congress live and work in the National Capital Area. Whereas a resident of California would have to travel to the District to speak in person to his or her representative, residents of the District commingle with Senators and Representatives regularly.
5. DC does not have the same diversity as states. Senators from DC would represent a much narrower viewpoint than do Senators from other states.
Washington does not contain the variety of parties and interests that normal cities do. The political reality is that DC would be guaranteed two Democratic senators for the foreseeable future.
6. DC is fiscally irresponsible. It hasn't shown that it deserves full voting representation.
The District cannot effectively manage its money, even with the oversight of the entire Congress; how does it think it would manage better left to its own devices?
7. If DC gets full representation, so should a lot of other cities that are bigger than DC.
In the 2000 census, DC ranked 21st in the size of its population. It was behind, for example, Memphis, Jacksonville, and San Diego. If DC should get voting representation in Congress with only 572,000 residents, why shouldn't New York City with its 8 million residents?
8. To give two Senators and one Representative to DC would unfairly dilute the vote of other Americans.
The District is a relatively small city with a relatively narrow political affiliation; if it gets voting representation, the votes of residents of large states such as New York or California would mean less. This is not fair.
9. The balance of power in Congress should not be upset by giving voting representation to a city full of Democrats.
Voting representation for the District would be a "freebie" for the Democrats. Such a blatantly partisan act should not be tolerated.