Tuesday, May 16, 2006

If democracy is such a great idea, why can't we have it in the District of Columbia?

I'm on all the usual progressive mass email lists: the ACLU, Moveon.org, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood. Several times a week one group or the other sends me a message about some terrible thing that Congress is about to do. They all want me to do the same thing: Write or call my senator and/or representative.

Unfortunately, I can't do it: I don't have one.

I live in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, but my only representation in Congress is a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. She happens to be very good at her job, but still, there's only so much a non-voting delegate can actually do.

Understand, the more than 500,000 of us who live in D.C. are U.S. citizens. We pay the same taxes as all the people who have representation in Congress. We serve in the military. We're subject to federal law. And we have about the same population as several states. But we don't have any say in making the federal law that applies to us.

We haven't been sitting on our hands. We tried a constitutional amendment, but it didn't get enough support in the states. We've tried to get Congress to take action, but they refuse. We've sued on the principle of taxation without representation, but we've been thrown out of court. Right now there's a bill in Congress to give our delegate voting rights if they also add in another member of Congress from Utah -- probably a conservative Republican to balance out our Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton -- and even that is unlikely.

Meanwhile, although we supposedly have home rule -- a mayor and city council who function both like a city and state government -- Congress still interferes in local affairs. We'd like to institute the commuter tax that other large central cities use -- since the population of Washington swells enormously during the day, putting a strain on our roads and other local resources -- but Congress won't let us. Our lawsuit over that just died in the Supreme Court May 15 -- they couldn't be bothered to hear it. A few years ago we had a referendum on medical marijuana on the local ballot and Congress wouldn't even let us count the votes.

Let's be clear about this: Congress doesn't interfere because our local decisions are bad for the District of Columbia or the U.S. in general. They interfere to protect the self-interest of people who live elsewhere. And the reason we haven't been successful in getting representation in the Senate is purely political: Everyone knows we'd elect two Democrats, probably two liberal African-American Democrats. No way a Republican-controlled Congress will let that happen.

Every time I hear Bush or someone else in the administration talk about promoting democracy abroad, I want to yell at him "How about promoting some democracy in the District of Columbia?" It's enough to make me call my senator. If I had one.

No comments: