Growing up just outside of Washington, D.C., I had ample interaction with the federal government. My dad worked for a government contractor, the parents and neighbors of friends were government employees and officials of all levels of importance and, most importantly, the daily mass migration of federal workers from their jobs often left me stuck on gridlocked roads between about 4:30 and 7:00 p.m. To this day, when I meet somebody from outside the area I grew up in, I introduce myself as being from D.C., because it often feels like I am just as much a part of what happens in D.C. as are those who actually live there.
In every way but one, this is categorically false; the speed with which I take back this claim when I mistakenly make it to an actual resident of the District is evidence enough of that. And yet, I, along with every other resident of Virginia, Maryland and the other 48 states in the union, have one thing that those who live in the capital do not: representation in the government that sits there. Residents of D.C. have no voting representation in Congress, despite taking in those which the rest of the country seems to collectively loathe and then having to be under more direct control of those 535 people than any other municipality. After 228 years, it’s time for that to change
If you ignore the fact that D.C. residents pay federal taxes and fight in wars, and yet still get no representation, their disenfranchisement can seem, for a second, less consequential. Although the federal government handles a portfolio of tasks as immense as it is diverse, much of the governing that affects people’s day-to-day lives takes place at the local level. Therefore, D.C.’s lack of federal representation might seem just a little more palatable. That is, until you learn about the control that Congress has over D.C.’s budget and local laws. Due to the fact that the Constitution gives Congress the exclusive power to legislate over D.C., D.C. is treated like an agency of the federal government, in that the budget that the local government decides on must then be approved as part of the federal budget process. Furthermore, even on local laws that are passed by D.C.’s city council and the mayor, Congress can keep the law from taking effect if it rejects it within thirty days of its passage.
And although this latter stipulation hasn’t been utilized by Congress in the past quarter century, that doesn’t mean that D.C. has not experienced real consequences from the congressional interference it faces. Beginning in 1998, the District was not allowed by Congress to use local tax dollars for a needle-sharing program aimed at preventing the spread of HIV. When that ban was ended, and the needle-sharing program began in 2008, a total of 120 transmissions were prevented over the next two years, according to a study from George Washington University, saving taxpayers over forty million dollars in treatment costs the city would likely have borne. Just a few years after the end of that ban on needle-sharing funding, a ban on using local funds for abortion was also used as a bargaining chip, as President Obama gave it to Republicans during federal budget negotiations in order to get other women’s health funding. After the district overwhelmingly voted for a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in 2014, Congress didn’t reject the decision entirely, but instead prevented district officials from using local money to regulate marijuana. Ignoring the will of local residents, Congress prevented the city whose public infrastructure they use all the time from regulating a new industry that could have given them more badly-needed tax dollars to help fix that same infrastructure.
Beyond the policy implications though, I think that principle is and always should be the main reason to give D.C. voting representation in Congress. Although giving the federal government a permanent seat of power outside of any state may have been why the District was created, it takes not a ten-minute walk to get from the Capitol building to neighborhoods that may be able to see the dome, but may as well be outside of the United States in terms of their ability to influence what happens inside of it. And even though this will ultimately be a political decision, let us talk about those politics frankly. The Senate currently has a bias towards more rural states with older, whiter, and, most significantly, smaller populations that will only be exacerbated in years to come. If anything, this problem of structural political inequity should be fixed by adding more states to the Union; Puerto Rico, Guam and other federal territories that don’t even currently have a say in presidential elections also have compelling arguments for statehood that would help to make more equitable a mal-apportioned body that is on track to have nearly 70 percent of the Senate representing only about thirty percent of the population.
Politics aside, though, 136 years after Abraham Lincoln signed a law that freed D.C.’s slaves nine months before in the rest of the country, it is time for both parties in Congress, including the one which Lincoln started and which claims his legacy, to give D.C. representation. Long the national stage itself, D.C. deserves a voice on it.
Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Setting The Temperature runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org