Rights Denied to D.C. Residents

DC residents do not enjoy the rights that American citizens in the 50 states do.


Because senators and representatives to Congress are elected only by Americans living in the 50 states, residents of Washington, DC are denied a voice. In such important matters as federal appointments, debates over taxes, war, or amendments to the Constitution, DC residents are involuntarily absent. Like the residents of US territories now thought of as long past history, Washington, DC's 700,000+ residents remain subjects of the federal government -- subjects because they cannot be constituents. Members of Congress represent those who can vote for or against them. Yet under our current system of government, Congress reserves the power to amend, deny funding (i.e. deny the use of local taxpayer money) or even overturn the laws passed by Washington, DC's local elected government regardless of the will of its residents. Residents of Washington, DC remain, as they have for over 200 years, second class citizens, Americans denied their full citizenship. 


Residents of Washington, DC are shut out of the political process in a wide variety of ways:

Taxation and Public Monies:

District residents pay more federal taxes per person than the residents of any state -- and provide more revenue to the federal government than more than 30 other states -- yet District residents have no voice in passing these taxes or deciding how they will be spent.


Senators and the Federal Appointments Process:
Having no senators, District residents have no voice in selecting the people who serve in the President’s cabinet, federal agencies, or the Supreme Court.


War and Peace:
Washingtonians have fought and died in every American war, yet no representative of Washington, DC has ever participated in the decision to send our sons and daughters to war.


Court Appointments:

No representative of Washington, DC has ever participated in choosing the people who serve on our local superior or federal courts.


Constitutional Amendments:

No representative of Washington, DC has ever participated in ratifying an amendment to the US Constitution.


Objections Raised at the Creation of Washington, DC

It was no secret in Congress at the turn of the 19th century that residency in the new Federal City meant disenfranchisement for thousands of former Marylanders and Virginians. During the floor debate in Congress establishing the District of Columbia (December 1800), Rep. John Smilie of Pennsylvania stated, "Not a man in the District would be represented in the government, whereas every man who contributed to the support of a government ought to be represented in it." A few years later (1803), during a floor debate on a bill to restore rights to the residents of the District, Rep. John Randolph, Jr. of Virginia warned, "This species in government is an experiment in how far freemen can be reconciled to live without rights, an experiment dangerous to the liberties of these States." During a debate on a subsequent bil to restore rights to the former Marylanders living in Washington, DC in 1804, Rep. Ebenezer Elmer of New Jersey called Congress' exclusive jurisdiction "a kind of government very foreign from the leading features of that [which] forms the basis of our social contract."


Limiting Democracy 

The first Washingtonians started out with the right to elect local officials. Congress abolished the District's elected government a few decades later, replacing it with an appointed one, a wrong that was not to be righted for more than a century. From the 1870s to the 1970s, three federally appointed commissioners governed a city -- more than 500,000 people by the 1930s, and more than 800,000 by the 1950s -- whose residents were denied any franchise whatsoever. District residents were granted a vote for President starting only in 1964.


Today's Washingtonians enjoy limited local government granted through the DC Home Rule Charter (a federal law created in 1973 which serves as DC's de facto state constitution). But because the US Constitution’s District Clause gives Congress the power “to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the District, Congress could alter or even abolish DC's local elected government again.


President William Henry Harrison, a former appointed governor of Indiana Territory, expressed concern about the expansive powers exercised by Congress over the District in his inaugural address (March 4, 1841): "It is in this District only where American citizens are to be found who, under a settled policy, are deprived of many important political privileges without any inspiring hope as to the future. ... Are their rights alone not to be guaranteed by the application of those great principles upon which all our constitutions are founded? ... The people of the District of Columbia are not subjects of the people of the United States, but free American citizens. Being in that latter condition when the Constitution was formed, no words in that document could have been intended to deprive them of that character." Unfortunately, they have continued to do just that for nearly two more centuries since that speech.    


Congress has no voice in how a state (or county or city within that state) spends its own revenues. Yet Congress holds the power to approve or disapprove the budget of the District of Columbia, as if a federal agency, before the District's government can spend its own tax dollars. While Congress has rarely disapproved the District's budget outright, Congress often attaches restrictions on the use of local money. One of the worst examples of such restrictions was a prohibition on needle exchange programs during the 1990s and 2000s. The blocking of this critical program to prevent the spread of HIV helped give Washington, DC the dubious distinction of having the highest HIV infection rate in the country.


Congress also restricts the amount of tax dollars that can be collected by the DC government. Two out of every three dollars in the District of Columbia are earned by people who do not live in the District. Yet the Home Rule Charter prohibits the District from taxing non-resident income. Every state has the authority to tax non-resident income earned within its borders. The non-resident income taxes that New Jersey and Connecticut residents pay to New York, for example, provide significant revenue for that state. Because of such restrictions, which create significant financial obstacles for the District, the federal government retains control over all of Washington DC's criminal justice system, paying the cost of the District’s local courts and prison system (folded into the federal Bureau of Prisons). These costs total about $1 billion annually.


Neither "Just Federal Employees" Nor Lab Rats

Like many Virginians and Marylanders, many Washingtonians work for the federal government. But many others do not. The residents of Washington, DC are engaged in a wide variety of careers, from the food industry to IT, music, tourism, law, healthcare, education (a large number of local universities) and many other jobs that are found in any major city. (The US Census ranked the District of Columbia as the twentieth largest American city in 2017, just behind Denver and just ahead of Boston.) 

Having no voting representation in either the US House of Representatives or US Senate makes residents of Washington, DC the only taxpaying "citizens" in the United States who have no voice in the making of our federal laws. This includes a variety of federal laws which have been implemented in Washington, DC alone. Some in Congress have called Washington, DC a "laboratory" for new laws, relishing in their ability to test policies in a place where the people cannot say no. It is time to move forward and apply the same rules of democracy here that operate in the rest of America.

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