Each license plate on a car registered in the District reads “Taxation Without Representation,” the old Revolutionary War-era saying. But to residents of this city, that sentiment isn’t merely historical — it’s the slogan of a decades-old struggle that’s still ongoing.
Many in the District are fighting for D.C. statehood. This would give Washingtonians full representation in Congress — residents currently have no voting representatives in either chamber — and control over their local budget, which currently is subject to full oversight by Congress.
“We have all the responsibilities of American citizens, but people we did not elect are making decisions about our money, whether or not we fight wars, [and] they decide how we spend local dollars,” Communications Director for D.C. Vote and D.C. resident James Jones said.
A Historic Effort
Though the issues of voting representatives in Congress and control over the budget now dominate the conversation about D.C. autonomy, there was a time when District residents couldn’t even vote for president and vice president. In 1953, President Eisenhower supported a constitutional amendment granting D.C. voting rights in presidential elections, but it took another eight years before the 23rdAmendment was ratified in 1961, granting the city three electors in the Electoral College. In 1969, a group including Julius Hobson, civil rights activist and statehood advocate, established the D.C. Statehood Party, an organization committed to ending congressional control over the District’s laws and budget.
In 1970, Congress granted the District a delegate to the House of Representatives, a post currently filled by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Norton is able to vote in committee and draft legislation, but she lacks the full voting rights of the 435 other members of the House of Representatives.
Achieving the lofty goal of statehood would require the cooperation of most of the country. In order to become a state, a constitutional amendment would require approval from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and from three-fourths of state legislatures. The other method of amending the Constitution, which has never been used, requires a convention of two-thirds of the state legislatures who can propose as many amendments as they want for ratification by three-fourths of the states.
But advantages of statehood go beyond budget and voting rights. According to Georgetown history professor Maurice Jackson, statehood would allow the District to establish a reciprocal state income tax for those who work in Washington but live in the neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland. Since 67 percent of the District’s workforce claims residence outside the city, the capital would be able to fund more of its own projects and investments through new taxpayer revenue. Moreover, as home to many nonprofits and lobbying groups, Washington as a state would be able to collect taxes from previously tax-exempt organizations including National Geographic and the National Rifle Association.
Battling Over Budgets
While full statehood is the end goal for most voting rights advocates in the District, organizations like D.C. Vote, a nonprofit founded in 1998, have set their sights on a more achievable goal for the immediate future: budget autonomy.
“We support any means to getting a vote in the House of Representatives and getting our two senators,” Jones said, explaining his organization’s advocacy for an independent D.C. budget. “That path for us involves a couple of things, the most important one being advocating for any step that increases our right to self-determination.”
Under current laws, the District’s yearly budget has to be approved by Congress, a process that can take months and can impact the functioning of the local government.
This state of affairs was created when the District of Columbia Home Rule Act was passed in 1973, allowing for the election of the mayor and the city council. This was an important step in giving the local government control but in many ways left the city subject to the whim of Congress.
“That’s a basic violation of our rights to self-determination. No one else has someone [whom] they did not elect tell them when and how to spend their money,” Jones said. “And it always gets caught up in the partisan bickering on the Hill.”
In case of a federal government shutdown — a possibility that has reared its head twice in 2011 and once in 2012 — the results would be far more troubling for Washington residents than for citizens of states. Not only would the government stop working, affecting thousands of employees for an unknown amount of time, but local services would also cease operating.
“Because D.C.’s budget is directly tied to the federal budget, our garbage would stop being picked up and the [Department of Motor Vehicles] would shut down,” Scott Stirrett (SFS ’13) said, explaining the consequences of a federal shutdown. “These are just other examples of why it is important for D.C. students to care about statehood.”
The co-founder of D.C. Students Speak, Stirrett works alongside peers from across the District to promote student voices in the city government. The organization supports full voting rights for the District of Columbia, among other platforms. According to its website, the organization “will not realize our shared vision of collaborative universities and communities until all of D.C.’s residents achieve full democracy.”
To reach this goal, DCSS is currently drafting a letter to send to students in order to encourage support for certain aspects of D.C. representation.
“Regardless of where people stand on the issue … the elected representatives in the District of Columbia should have a say where taxpayer dollars go under its jurisdictions. The federal government should not be able to boss D.C.,” Stirett said.
Whether in the context of calls for statehood or the fight for an independent budget, advocacy for D.C. autonomy often gets wrapped up in partisan political battles raging on the Hill.
In April 2011, several prominent D.C. officials were arrested during a protest against a federal budget rider that denied District politicians the ability to make decisions regarding funding for public education and for abortions for low-income women. The rider, which was added to the budget as part of an 11th-hour deal to stave off a federal government shutdown, was largely supported by congressional Republicans.
Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Councilmembers Kwame Brown and Muriel Bowser stood outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building along with 200 other advocates to condemn the measure. The protesters sat in the middle of Constitution Avenue and chanted, “Free D.C.” and “We can’t take it no more.” The Capitol Police arrested 41 people in the protest, including Gray and Brown.
“The District of Columbia’s right to govern itself has, once again, been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency,” Gray said in a statement released after the protest. “This indignity comes on top of the fact that no other state or jurisdiction had to endure the hardship of planning to shut down a municipal government, thus spending valuable resources and personnel on a process that never should have been necessary.”
Just as in the April 2011 protest, showdowns over District autonomy often come down to party politics. Historically, the GOP has been opposed to D.C. statehood — the party formally adopted an amendment to its platform opposing statehood for the nation’s capital earlier this year.
According to the Director of Communications for the Georgetown College Republicans Kathryn Bolas (COL ’15), the reason for the GOP’s opposition is based in the Constitution.
“The will of our founding fathers is explicitly stated in the Constitution, Article I Section 8, calling for not a state but a ‘District’ to house the federal government. As Republicans we support strict interpretation of the Constitution and, therefore, oppose D.C. statehood,” Bolas said in an email.
But the politics of support for greater independence for the District has been shifting. Recently, top Republicans, including House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), declared their support for D.C. budget autonomy.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) also voiced his support for budget autonomy in a letter written to Cantor and Issa in which he wrote, “It’s what the governors of every state enjoy.”
And while the issue may bring about partisan difficulties on the Hill, within the city the subject unifies the two parties.
“There wasn’t a lot of opposition to [the Republican platform] except from Republicans in the District, who are very supportive of budget autonomy and statehood,” Jones said.
Following Congress’ return to the floor after next Tuesday’s election, Norton is hoping to push the issue onto the lame-duck session agenda. Chances of federal success seem slim, however, given the opposition Congress has historically displayed towards the movement.
While their delegate advocates for statehood at the federal level, the city council is beginning to take matters into its own hands. On Nov. 9, the council will conduct a hearing about a possible citywide referendum in favor of budget autonomy that would limit Congressional oversight. The procedures for this referendum were established under the 1973 Home Rule Act.
“We believe we have the rights under the charter to pass a referendum that would allow us to spend our own tax dollars after the mayor has signed the bill without Congressional approval,” Jones said of the plan for which his organization has been advocating. “Congress would still have the ability to overturn that. They would also have the ability to offer legislation to meddle with our budget, but this would create a budget process that would be much more in line with the way people are treated in every other part of the country.”
According to Joshua Matfess, a sophomore at American University and president of Students for D.C. Statehood, the District’s status is as much an issue for the college students who call the city home as it is for permanent residents. The District and its surrounding area serve as home to at least 140,000 college students.
“Students, especially university students, should care about local issues in general, including D.C. statehood, because they are likely to live and work here in the future,” Matfess said. “[At] the very least, students will live in the District for four years, so they ought to take some ownership and fight to make it a better place to live for everyone.”
Matfess’ involvement with Students for D.C. Statehood began after visiting Gray’s office on a field trip for a government class. Having learned about the District’s subordinate status, he and a few other students picked up the paperwork to start a new organization to advocate for statehood.
According to Matfess, garnering student interest in the topic can be challenging because a large majority of students do not live in the District. Nevertheless, advocates say this diversity can be advantageous; once students learn about the issue, they are better able to educate people in their home states about the importance of D.C. statehood.
“The voting rights movement has been cursed with inward thinking, and so Students for D.C. Statehood wants to go outside the box and bring education to high schools across America and to tourists visiting the capital,” Matfess said.
Stirrett also emphasized the potential that D.C. college students have to raise awareness about the issue outside of the city.
“Where college students fit into this is that they are able to create a network across the country,” he said. Ideally, these students would carry the message back to their homes and help stimulate a national call for change, the only hope the city would have for the passage of a statehood amendment.
At the same time, Jones realizes that a national political climate that is receptive to the issue of D.C. statehood is a long way off.
“In the current political setup, achieving statehood is a very difficult proposition. People don’t understand it well,” he said. “People respond well to issues of democracy and voting rights and representation, but when you make the jump to statehood, it’s more difficult … Statehood raises a lot of questions with people.”
Jones believes that a strong educational program that would raise national awareness is the missing link for the movement.
“I think once a critical mass of people understand what’s happening in the District and understand the injustice, I think it’ll be a lot easier to get statehood,” Jones said. “In the end, we will get statehood. The District of Columbia will be a state.”