A SEVENTH GRADER studying American government years ago asked his teacher if people living in Washington, D. C. really didn't pay any taxes. Referring to the nation's founding principle of "no taxation without representation," his teacher mistakenly responded that since District of Columbia residents have no Congressional representation they did not pay taxes. "Today, I'm trying to make up for it," says Ruth C. Klick, the grade school teacher who now fights to win full representation for the District as a leader of the capital's chapter of the League of Women Voters.
What Klick naively never suspected was that the tenets of democracy are far from obvious where the nation's capital is concerned. Despite common misperceptions, the District is entitled to only one, non-voting representative in Congress although its 630,000 citizens do pay federal and local taxes and bear all other responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.
Ironically, the citizens who have the least say in the federal government are precisely those who need it most. Due to Washington's unique status as a federal district, virtually all of the city's decisions are subject to Congressional approval. This places D.C. residents at the mercy of all U.S. residents even in matters of purely local concern. According to Rep. David Marriot (R-Utah), "Only Congress has the right to decide what kind of activity we want in Washington, D.C.... If they [Washingtonians] don't like it they can move to Maryland or Virginia."
A recent example of such national intervention in local affairs is a bill which sought to revise and update the city's sexual assault codes. The bill failed when the Moral Majority lobbied against it because it was an opportunity to make an example of the District. In the words of one D.C. resident, "It's like child abuse, Congressmen who are frustrated and feeling pressure from all sides take it out on the District." No other U.S. constituency is subject to this degree of Congressional scrutiny and control.
Inherent in the victimization of D. C. is the vague misconception that somehow the District is not a real city. Groups fighting to win representation for the city spend much of their time debunking widespread myths about the capital. Far from being a "one interest town" or a colony of bureaucrats, more than two-thirds of the city's workers are non-federal employees. In fact, many affluent government employees live in Maryland and Virginia suburbs while the population of D.C. itself is predominantly Black and lower class.
AFTER MORE THAN 180 years of debate, Congress in 1978 presented the District with a specific proposal for full representation in the form of the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment (House Joint Res. 554). More than four year's after that bill's passage, however--with only three years left to win ratification--only 10 of the 38 states needed have voted in favor of the amendment and the legislation seems fated to die in obscurity.
Unlike the existing statehood initiative, the amendment would not forge a state of "New Columbia" from the city on the Potomac, but instead give the District the proper representation of a state without changing its unique status as a federal enclave. Given the District's current population which is comparable to four state', this would translate into two senators and one representative.
Nevertheless, there are more than a few who prefer to substitute hypocrisy for democracy and continue to deny D.C. citizens voting rights. Although the amendment has garnered bi-partisan support, it is an easy target for many who consider the District to be to urban, too liberal, too Black and too Democratic. Attacks have come chiefly from what Klick describes as the radical conservative rightwing groups such as The American Conservative Union, the Conservative Caucus, the Heritage and Liberty foundations." Genuine conservatives generally support the American principle of "one man, one vote," she adds.
The amendment's most formidable opponent, however, seems to be disinterest. Although an impressive list of politicians and local public interest groups have endorsed the measure, few supporters have translated that nominal backing into substantive and concerted lobbying efforts. Despite their good intentions, these groups do not necessarily place representation for the District very high on their list of priorities. In fact, it seems that the concerns of the District do not weigh heavily on anyone except the Washingtonians themselves.
And therein lies as classic a catch-22 as ever appeared upon the political spectrum without Congressional representation the District is powerless to win an amendment guaranteeing its citizens a voice in that body. Instead, Washingtonians must rely on the benevolence of the 50 states in an arena not noted for displays of political charity. Some Republicans shy from the prospect of two new Democratic voices in the Senate; rural constituencies may wince when considering a stronger urban voice in Congress; and even legislators kindly disposed to the amendment simply see no compelling reason to put their neck on the line on behalf of District residents.
Nonetheless, 10 state legislatures have stepped forward to affirm fundamental justice for the District. Hopefully more states will adopt this political orphan, not from self-satisfied benevolence but with a mind to what seventh graders will learn in their history classes.