More than 500,000 people live in the District of Columbia. As the capital of this nation, the District is the symbol of the freedoms for which this nation stands. The light of democracy shines from the District, but does not illuminate this city. The core is hollow. The values of equality and political participation that the city promises are denied right here, in our nation’s Capital.
Most Americans do not know, and many would find it hard to believe, that under our current system DC residents are second-class citizens. The District is denied local control – Congress must approve the District’s budget, and can override any action of the city government. At the same time, District residents do not have even one voting representative in the Congress which controls them. DC is effectively a colony, with all local decisions directly subject to change by a Congress largely out of touch with local realities.
Most people who live outside of the District do not know that DC citizens pay about $2 billion a year in federal income taxes – more than several states – yet cannot elect people to decide how their money is spent. DC residents have served and died in our armed services over the last half century in disproportionately high numbers, but have no representation in the Congress that decides whether or not to go to war. The U.S. is the only democracy in the world that deprives the residents of its capital city the basic rights granted to other citizens.
Even more damaging than the lack of Congressional representation is the colonial-style control that Congress exerts over the District. Adding one, or three, DC representatives to the 535 members of Congress would, by itself, do little to solve this problem.
Unaccountable power is by its nature abusive. The places where unaccountable power is exercised are, and must be, dysfunctional. Unaccountable power is uninformed. Members of Congress don’t know this city. They don’t know what’s right for its people. They approve the budget and all the legislation, but they do not themselves have to live with their decisions. They foist pet projects on citizens who are perfectly capable of deciding these issues locally. They prevent the
District from taxing income where it is earned. They regularly overturn the judgment of local elected officials – on public health, tax, budget, school issues – all with impunity.
Unaccountable power is destructive. It chokes the ability and destroys the responsibility of people to govern themselves. There is no place in the world where second-class citizens live side by side with first-class citizens and fare as well. It just doesn’t happen. What happens to a community where the people cannot exercise authority, where there is no democracy? People stop participating. They don’t run for local offices. The civic culture of the community withers away.
President Clinton has often objected to Congress’s arbitrary use of its colonial power over the District. Last September, he wrote a veto message chiding Congress for attempting to block District decisions that he correctly argued were local matters in the areas of: advocating statehood, access to special education, abortion, and drug policy, among other issues. But he has not publicly followed his argument to its logical conclusion and called for full local control and self-determination.
The results of Congressional interference and the inefficiency of colonial-style management are as distressing as they are predictable. Poverty has increased, during a time of economic expansion, with the percentage of residents in poverty going from 16.6% in 1988 to an appalling 22.1% in 1998. Even more astonishing was the growth in income inequality. The richest 20% of DC residents earned 16.4 times as much as the poorest 20% in the late 80s, and 27.1 times as much in the late 90s.
The voters of the District of Columbia should be allowed to hold a referendum District to choose their future status.
Local control is what will make it possible for the District to start fixing its problems. With legislative and appropriations delays, regular governing confusion, and Congressional interference eliminated, the District would be more able to deal with its pressing problems. The solution for the problems of democracy is more democracy!