“Taxation without representation is tyranny” is perhaps one of the most iconic phrases of the American Revolution. It artfully combined indignation towards the oppressive British government and the patriot belief in representative democracy. Today, over 200 years later, the phrase is proudly displayed on license plates in Washington, D.C., the center of political power where, paradoxically, many residents feel powerless.
The road to political power for Washington, D.C.’s majority Black population has been hard-fought. When the federal government was first moved to D.C. in 1800, residents had no ability to rule themselves through what is known as “home rule.” Instead, a Congress elected by the rest of the country had exclusive ability to rule the city as it saw fit. District residents were quick to see the irony in the situation, writing in a letter to Congress, “We shall be reduced to that deprecated condition of which we pathetically complained in our charges against Great Britain, of being taxed without representation.” Reform came partly during the civil rights movement, with the passage of the 23rd Amendment granting partial suffrage to D.C. residents and allowing them to vote in presidential elections. The D.C. Home Rule Act, passed shortly after, allowed residents to elect a mayor and council. Congress, however, remained in control of D.C. law. In an ironic twist, it prohibited the D.C. government from spending any funds on lobbying for representation.
Today, D.C. residents still lack any real control over their government, and efforts toward self-governance are actively rebuffed by Republicans in Congress. Lawmakers have prohibited the D.C. government from funding needle-exchange programs (D.C. now has the highest rate of HIV in the country), prevented D.C. from enacting gun control measures, and attempted to trade D.C. abortion rights to avert the government shutdown. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee even threatened to have D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser arrested over passage of marijuana legalization in the District, saying “We’re not playing a little game here.”
However, D.C.’s local government has not remained complacent in the face of this onslaught. In recent years, Mayor Muriel Bowser has escalated the fight for representation, forming the New Columbia Statehood Commission, holding a referendum on statehood, and refusing to ask Congress permission to enact its budget. Additionally, the city’s economy has diversified, making it less beholden to funding from the federal government. The tide in D.C. certainly seems to be swinging towards statehood. In a recent speech, Bowser said, “our zip code should not determine our ability to enjoy the franchise.” Americans, increasingly, would seem to agree. Over 82 percent of all Americans think that D.C. should have representation in Congress.
November 8, 2016 marked a major setback in the path to D.C. statehood. While almost 80 percent of D.C. residents voted to support statehood in the referendum, the election also marked a major shift towards the right for America, with the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. Tom Sherwood, analyst of D.C. politics, didn’t mince words: “the big plan [for statehood] is dead.” D.C., more than almost any other place in the nation, will face the brunt of a Trump presidency. Without any federalist buffer like the rest of the United States, the District will essentially be left at the mercy of a Trump presidency to tinker with its laws as the administration pleases. A Republican Congress could particularly disrupt D.C.’s status as a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, one of Trump’s campaign promises. As D.C. councilmember David Grosso said, “We already are a target … The District of Columbia is right here.” The only option for D.C. seems to be to hunker down and keep the flame of statehood alive. If anything, this election has shown precisely why D.C. autonomy is so very critical.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Lorie Shaull