A 51-star flag?

Zach Wiita

Tired of subprime mortgages and bailouts? Weary of the election? Don’t worry, so am I. But I am worried about something else – something far more basic, something many of us have never given any thought to. Some of us might be inclined to dismiss this issue out of hand, but that would be a mistake. This issue speaks to the heart of American democracy.

Bottom line: How many of you know that more than half a million American citizens, in the heart of the United States itself, do not have representation in Congress?

The District of Columbia comprises the seat of the United States government. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population stands at 588,292 – more people than live in the entire state of Wyoming. And yet, residents of the District of Columbia have unequal representation in Congress. Instead of a U.S. representative, they have a non-voting delegate (Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat) to the House of Representatives who can only vote in committee. The District has no U.S. senator. This, of course, stems from the fact that only states can have U.S. representatives and senators – and, embarrassingly enough, the District of Columbia is not a state.

In point of fact, D.C. does not even have the same rights to self-governance that a state has. The U.S. Constitution explicitly grants Congress full authority over the District; D.C.’s current government was only put in place in the early 1970s by an act of Congress, and could legally be abolished at Congress’s pleasure. In the past, D.C. was governed by Congress through a special committee – a committee that was given to the worst and most incompetent members of Congress, leading to severe municipal mismanagement. Residents of the District of Columbia, in short, do not have an equal say in the formation of federal laws and have self-governance only at Congress’s sufferance – and yet they have to abide by all federal laws and regulations, must accept that their government can be interfered with at any time by the federal government, and have to pay the same federal income taxes everyone else does.

Where I come from, that’s called taxation without representation.

The Democrats, shortly after taking control of Congress in 2007, tried to pass a law giving D.C. a full seat in the House of Representatives. Because the District is overwhelmingly Democratic, the bill also included a provision to grant Republican-dominated Utah another seat in the House, thus not giving either party an advantage. The bill was defeated through procedural maneuvers by House Republicans, of course. Unfortunately, the Republicans were correct in noting something: The U.S. Constitution only grants House seats to states.

I’ve decided more needs to be done. While there are organizations out there dedicated to getting D.C. its House seat – www.dcvote.org comes to mind – it seems to me that this isn’t going far enough. D.C. deserves the same rights to self-governance that any other politically independent community in the United States deserves. It shouldn’t have to deal with the idea of Congress overturning its laws if, say, they pass a marriage law the Feds don’t approve of, and they should have the same say in the formation of federal law that other citizens have. And that’s why the District of Columbia ought to become a state.

Think that sounds like a radical suggestion? I don’t. Heck, it’s not even a new one. In 1982, D.C. residents ratified a proposed state constitution, calling their proposed new state “New Columbia,” with legislation introduced in Congress to admit D.C. as the 51st state. The legislation failed, of course, as did a proposed constitutional amendment to grant D.C. the same home rule rights that states have. D.C. residents remain under the authority of a government in which they have little voice – even as their fellow citizens ignore protestations such as the D.C. license plates, which display the words “TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION” on them. This is unacceptable; in a society dedicated to democracy and equality, it makes no sense for the residents of the capital to be denied those rights. Sure, maybe we needed a neutral capital to balance the various competing states in the 18th and 19th centuries, but America has moved beyond that.

Now, here’s full disclosure: I interned in Washington, D.C., for the office of U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the current Democratic vice presidential nominee. And while living in D.C. I completely and absolutely fell in love with that city. I love the culture. I love the history. I love the architecture. I love the climate. I love everything about Washington, D.C., and hope to live and work there one day. So when I say that I want D.C. to have equal representation in Congress, I’m saying this as much out of self-interest as altruism. The thought of not being able to vote for my own member of Congress or senator just because of where I live bothers me. I hope it bothers you, too. After all, why shouldn’t Americans who live in the heart of the United States have the same rights you do?

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theater studies major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].