D.C. Wants a Vote. Is That So Wrong?

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While most of us were stuck in line at the post office on Monday, trying to send off your tax returns (or a plea for an extension), hundreds of protesters were chanting, "No taxation without representation" in Washington D.C.'s Farragut Square. Then they lit their 1040s on fire. And these weren't corporate executives celebrating tax havens in Bermuda.

Washington's mayor, city council and Congressional delegate joined hundreds of D.C. residents who are tired of paying their taxes to a government that won't give them a vote in Congress. While most of the country isn't paying much attention to the issue, D.C. residents feel they have a legitimate complaint. And they're pretty desperate to get your attention.

When America's founding fathers created the District of Columbia, they wanted a small enclave for the federal government that was completely separate from the states. After all, those states weren't big fans of a strong federal government back then, and Congress wanted an area, however small, that it could control. And it worked fine back then — but today this has created an anomaly of a town where close to 600,000 U.S. citizens live with almost no representation in the national government. Things used to be worse — until 1974, the city was actually run by Congress. Voters were finally allowed to choose their own mayor and city council that year. In 1964, the city got to cast electoral votes in the presidential race for the first time.

In 1971, residents gained the right to elect a delegate to the House of Representatives. Peculiarly, that delegate doesn't get a vote. Eleanor Holmes Norton currently holds that job, voting on the committees she sits on and advocating tirelessly for the people of D.C., but it is incredibly frustrating for her to not be able to truly represent her city by casting votes on the House floor. Now, one of her top priorities is trying to change that.

She's quick to point out that Washington residents give more to the country than tax money. Plenty of Washington's young men, for example, have died fighting for this country. But what dismays Norton most is that most of the nation doesn't even know about the issue of taxation without representation. An advocacy group called D.C. Vote did a poll and found that even among college educated Americans, more than half didn't know Washington's residents do not have full-fledged Congressional representation. Fittingly, a major goal of the city's advocates is to educate the public, drawing attention to the issue any way they can.

Norton has proposed a bill, cosponsored by Senator Joe Lieberman, to get the city's representative the vote. The pair also plans to sponsor a special lobbying day in the Senate next month. Tuesday, D.C. activist Tim Cooper went before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to protest. And city residents have successfully lobbied the Organization of American States to release a report complaining about the situation.

Why is the issue so big now? Well, for one thing, the city has a lot to be proud of lately. "When you live with an issue forever, it's very hard to energize people," says Norton. "But there's a new energy in this city." Ten years ago, many residents would have been too embarrassed to draw attention to their hometown. The city government, run mainly by Mayor Marion Barry since 1978, was swollen with corruption and overspending.

Things got so bad that in 1995 Congress took control, putting a board in charge of most city operations. But Norton and other city representatives worked closely with Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders to cut costs and turn the city around. By the time the control board's chief financial officer, Anthony Williams, was elected mayor in 1998, the city was experiencing a rebirth and Congress let the mayor and city council take charge again.

But that same Congress is still unwilling to let city residents have full representation. And sadly, the reason is purely partisan. While Republicans hold the majority in the House they are not going to let the city choose a true, voting representative. That's because said representative will definitely be a Democrat. Almost 60% of Washington's population is black, and an even larger percentage is Democratic; in the 2000 election, Al Gore got 85 percent of the vote. So an issue that is nothing more than an unhappy constitutional paradox is frozen by petty party politics — and to change that, D.C. residents will need a lot of help from outside their city limits.