November 9, 2003

Capital or state?

By: James N. Markels

If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, you’re familiar with inscription on license plates of D.C. residents’ cars: “Taxation Without Representation.” D.C. residents are taxed like anybody else in America, but they don’t have representatives in Congress petitioning their interests. This situation cuts against the underlying principle of democracy that this nation was founded upon, and many D.C. residents campaign for D.C. to be made the 51st state in the Union, complete with two senators and a representative, to rectify this anomaly. But many concerns compel against this solution.

First, there’s the Constitution, which empowers Congress with “exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may . . . become the Seat of the Government of the United States.” There is a good reason for this power. As James Madison argued in the 1788 Virginia Ratifying Convention for the Constitution, “If any state had the power of legislation over the place where Congress should fix the general government, this would impair the dignity, and hazard the safety, of Congress. If the safety of the Union were under the control of any particular state, would not foreign corruption probably prevail, in such a state, to induce it to exert its controlling influence over the members of the general government?”

In other words, the federal government needs to ensure complete control over its environment so that it can be free from the interests of individual states, outside of the representative politicians themselves. This also gives the federal government a small area with which to provide itself with the necessary infrastructure to do its job without having to dicker with local interests. If, say, a new building for the Department of Homeland Security is needed, the federal government can make it happen. It doesn’t have to haggle with the local government over where to put it or whether the locals want a new building at all.

This realization of the needs of a federal government feeds into the concept of D.C. as the nation’s capital. As Madison noted in Federalist #43, the nation’s capital is “too great a public pledge to be left in the hands of a single state.” D.C. is the home to our national monuments, museums, and federal buildings. All Americans have a stake in these things. Congress, as the repository of the will of the people, can properly direct the care, creation, and maintenance of those organs that make a national capital.

Not to mention that efforts at representative home rule in D.C. have generally not met with much success. Starting with Sayles Bowen, elected mayor of D.C. in 1866 (there were elected mayors in D.C. from 1820 to 1871, despite the recent popularization of the late Walter Washington as the first D.C. mayor), and re-emphasized by the likes of Marion Barry, there has been an earned lack of trust between Congress and elected D.C. officials that prevents Congress from giving up the reins to the management of the capital.

So, from a policy perspective, the nation’s capital is a reasonable place for Congress to have complete dominion, even over the interests of its residents. But why shouldn’t those residents have some representation in Congress itself if they’re being made to pay the same taxes everyone else pays?

There’s the obvious issue that Republicans don’t want to give D.C. representation as if it was a state because the current population tips heavily Democratic. But more relevant, making D.C. a state necessarily raises the question of why we shouldn’t make larger cities, like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, states in and of themselves as well. Where would it end?

It would make more sense to allow D.C. residents to vote in Maryland’s elections, like they did back before 1800. In fact, a resident of Georgetown, Uriah Forrest, served as a congressional representative for Maryland in 1793-94. But Maryland doesn’t want that anymore. The concerns of upscale and rural Marylanders don’t sync well with the problems faced by D.C. residents, and it would throw their state politics out of whack. Virginia doesn’t want D.C. voters either, being a more politically conservative state that has already taken back Arlington and Alexandria from the original District.

So without a state willing to take D.C. voters, and no practical reason to give the city itself statehood, there’s only one remaining option: Let D.C. residents be exempt from paying federal taxes. That would certainly answer the “no taxation without representation” plea, and you’d think that D.C. residents would jump at the chance to not pay taxes. So why don’t we hear more about this?

I will guess it’s because the poorer D.C. residents are worried that if D.C. becomes a shelter from taxes, the city would gentrify at an astounding rate. Money would come pouring in, buying up all the low-income housing and sending the poor, predominantly black inner-city population elsewhere. While that might be great for D.C. as a city, tax breaks don’t mean much to those who don’t pay much taxes in the first place. They would rather stay put and push for a vote that the system and existing political realities won’t allow. And that’s why they only have a license plate motto to show for it.

James N. Markels is a law student at George Mason University.