Should DC Get Representation?

Washington City Paper has a story this week about how gun control became the issue that sank voting rights for the District of Columbia’s congressional representative. Over at Hit & Run, Matt Welch has blogged it, but what I want to focus on is the normative question of whether D.C. has a right to be represented in Congress – or equivalently, that Congress has an obligation to give D.C. residents voting rights. Welch seems very sympathetic to the position that they do: “It is always instinctively repellant (sic) to see a piece of legislation–particularly one having to do with basic enfranchisement–get saddled and ultimately sunk with a completely unrelated provision” (emphasis added).

But is enfranchisement really a human right? After all, the constitutional framers clearly had reasons for disenfranchising D.C. Perhaps they did not anticipate that the city’s population would grow so large, but surely they did anticipate that the city’s population would be dominated by federal politicians, bureaucrats, and people who serve them. If they wanted to put into the Constitution a little check, however minor, on the growth of government, disenfranchising D.C. would fit the bill. After all, isn’t there some conflict of interest in allowing government(-subsidized) officials to vote themselves more jobs, higher salaries, and less oversight? I don’t advocate totally disenfranchising government employees and contractors – after all, they (we, actually – I work for a state university) have a legitimate interest in curbing potential abuse of their rights too. But I just don’t think there’s an inherent individual right to vote. Voting is a means to an end, so I favor whatever enfranchisement scheme in the long run best protects everyone’s liberty, even if such a scheme disenfranchised me.


18 thoughts on “Should DC Get Representation?

  1. The Church of Democracy will not tolerate such heretics!

    BTW, I assume that in theory you think there is a right to at least one vote – at the start when we decide to abandon anarchy and form a social contract.

  2. Yes, but using the term “vote” there seems a bit metaphorical, sort of like “voting with feet” or “voting with dollars” – a term for an individual choice that, when summed with other individual choices, yields a social distribution of wealth, power, or whatever – but the individual choice is still decisive for that individual, unlike voting on group decisions.

  3. DC residents complain that they have no representation in Congress and Senate.

    Well, that was fixed for half of DC when Virginia took back Arlington.

    The remaining portion of DC should ask Maryland to take it back — that way they’d get as much representation as every other medium-small city in a full-sized state.

    1. This is the obvious solution and has long been what I’ve advocated. The fact that neither Republicans or Democrats push for the Back to Maryland approach indicates that both parties are really interested in partisan advantage, not representation.

  4. The Constitution clearly establishes that there is a constitutional “right to vote” for citizens of the United States. It explicitly states as much in the four amendments that protect that right against state and Federal infringement on the basis of race, sex, failure to pay a poll tax and age. Obviously, it’s a weak right and one that is subject to a number of limitations at the state level, but you’re talking about barring nearly 400,000 citizens from effectively participating in the federal legislative process.

    I would suggest that a better way to pose your question is, “Are we, as a nation, prepared to continue disenfranchising citizens on the basis of geography?” If I were a cynic, I might add “partisanship” in there, as well, given the obvious Democratic bent of the District.

    I know this sounds glib, but I’m not certain that your justification is any less glib: small government is good, DC voters might elect up to three legislative officials who might vote to expand government, thus DC should not have the right to vote. I agree with you that voting is, at its heart, merely a means to end. But the end is not “small government;” the end, I think, is a government that represents the best interests of its citizens. How does excluding a substantial portion of the nation’s citizens from the legislative process achieve that end?

    P.S. I know I come across as somewhat trollish in my posts, but I really enjoy this blog and very much appreciate the thinking your (and your fellow bloggers’) posts require of me.

    1. Speaking for myself, I appreciate your hard questions!

      On the constitutional point, the Constitution only recognizes that citizens of states have the right to vote for representatives in Congress (14th Amendment). If DC’s passionate advocates of district enfranchisement thought there was a cogent case that the Constitution mandates enfranchisement, surely they would have brought a federal case by now.

      But my point was really about the underlying moral, rather than legal, position. I happen to think that small government (at any level larger than that from which people themselves can readily withdraw consent) is the only kind of government consistent with “the best interests” of people. I certainly realize that those who disagree with my position may disagree with the conclusion that I reach on this particular question. And it seems that you & I both agree that voting is not an end in itself, which makes the question of whether DC should be enfranchised or not a contingent one, not a matter of fundamental human rights.

  5. Sven, I think you give short shrift to the power of statehood and citizenship. Yes there are certainly people in both political parties who punt around the issue of DC representation for purely partisan reasons. But, there are also many DC residents who feel about the District the way, say, Texans feel about Texas (full disclosure: up until recently, I was one of those people). Those people want representation, and they want it as DC residents, not Maryland residents.

    More generally, if geographic and political boundaries have no meaning, why do we pay such deference to states?

    1. Lots of people have strong attachments to the cities they live in: New York, Boston and Philadephia for starters. But does this mean that those cities should be made states? Illinois is essentially Chicago v. non-Chicago, and many Chicagoans feel little affinity for the people down-state, and antipathy towards the influence of Chicago (which without Chicago is is roughly equivalent to rural Indiana) is felt strongly outside of Chicagoland. So should Chicago become a state?

      I don’t think the founders ever envisioned cities becoming states, and the District is a city–and not even a very big one at that (or a very interesting one, outside of the Federal areas).

      I want the people in the District to have representation. That is why the city of Columbia (minus a small area around the Mall and the dominant Federal buildings) should go back to Maryland. This gives them representation without distorting the notion of a state.

      And I’ve known people from both DC and Texas, and I can’t imagine your claim would hold up at all were we to actually measure such a thing.

  6. “DC residents” is a really lousy proxy for “government employees.” Do you want to disenfranchise the Maryland and Virginia suburbs? And do you have any evidence whatsoever for your theory of the thinking of the framers on this subject?

    1. As a proxy, it does commit Type II errors, but is very good at avoiding Type I errors – which is probably what we want out of a proxy of this type. Contrary to popular perception, the area did have many residents at the time the district was created, who lost suffrage. If the framers had been concerned about this, they would have done something about it then. I think there are good reasons why the framers didn’t want the national capital to be a state or quasi-state with full federal representation, so long as its residents enjoyed local autonomy.

  7. I’m not familiar with your jargon on types of errors. I would argue, however, that DC disenfranchisement makes both types of errors, as there are in fact many people in DC who don’t work for the Federal Government.

    Even if the framers anticipated DC’s loss of suffrage, do you have any evidence that this was over concern about government workers voting in Federal elections? There’s also the question of how DC disenfranchisement fits with the fundamental principle of “no taxation without representation.” On a certain level, supporting DC disenfranchisement requires admitting that the American Revolution was a mistake.

  8. as there are in fact many people in DC who don’t work for the Federal Government.

    But surely almost everyone living in DC has a vested interest in the growth of the federal government. According to the Tax Foundation, DC receives roughly 6 times more federal dollars than it pays in taxes, which is several times the figure for the most federally dependent state.

    Even if the framers anticipated DC’s loss of suffrage, do you have any evidence that this was over concern about government workers voting in Federal elections?

    Perhaps not – come to think of it, the idea that government would ever become so large that it could become its own constituency would have been well beyond their ken. However, I did find this from Federalist 43:

    “And as it [the federal district] is to be appropriated to this use with the consent of the State ceding it; as the State will no doubt provide in the compact for the rights and the consent of the citizens inhabiting it; as the inhabitants will find sufficient inducements of interest to become willing parties to the cession; as they will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them; as a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed them; and as the authority of the legislature of the State, and of the inhabitants of the ceded part of it, to concur in the cession, will be derived from the whole people of the State in their adoption of the Constitution, every imaginable objection seems to be obviated. The necessity of a like authority over forts, magazines, etc. , established by the general government, is not less evident. The public money expended on such places, and the public property deposited in them, requires that they should be exempt from the authority of the particular State. Nor would it be proper for the places on which the security of the entire Union may depend, to be in any degree dependent on a particular member of it.”

    Madison here seems to be saying that a) taxation w/o representation isn’t an issue, b/c the residents will have their own local government, and b) putting the seat of government in a state (or presumably a state-like entity) would give that state too much sway over the federal government.

    As for the Revolution, I don’t think the colonists ever wanted American representation in the British House of Commons, which would have been impractical in that age. The “taxation without representation” complaint had to do with the suspension of the colonial assemblies and the appointment of pliant governors by the king.

  9. Numerous Americans have a vested interest in the growth of one or another area of the federal government–not to mention the interest of non-disenfranchised residents of state capitals in the growth of state government. Should citizens of towns economically dependent on military bases be disenfranchised? And the Madison quote seems a bit more ambiguous than you describe it. The phrase “as they will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them” refers to precisely what current residents of DC don’t have. And even if it applied to the first generation of DC residents, how would that bind future generations?

    And of course, realistically speaking, DC’s local government is severely checked by Congress, in which DC doesn’t have a vote. DC’s “municipal legislature” doesn’t have the power or independence of a state legislature.

  10. I do favor removing Congress’ power to override the DC city council. Self-government should make much more of a difference in DC residents’ lives than one vote in the U.S. House.

    As for other places, I suppose you’re asking about a hypothetical universe in which I had a chance to reshape all political institutions to my own design. In such a world, I might favor something like a weighted voting system, in which government employees and employees and owners of government contractors had votes that were worth less than private citizens, but everyone would nevertheless have a vote.

    I wonder whether advocates of DC representation would extend their view to other federal territories: Guam, American Samoa, Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico, & the U.S. Virgin Islands. It would seem only fair to accord them the same rights that DC would enjoy, but no one to my knowledge has actually proposed such a plan.

    1. The difference is that those places aren’t subject to federal taxes as DC is. I’m a little surprised that you think people exempt from taxes should be entitled to representation to vote on the budget, but I guess fairness is just that important to you!

      1. The “exempt from taxes” provision is simply that, a specific that can be changed. On the other hand, “just power derives from the Consent of the Governed” is and unchanging, fundamental premise of all forms of participatory government.

        Specific provisions can vary from time to time and place to place, depending on circumstances. PRINCIPLES such as Consent of the Governed, however, reflect inalienable (innate, intrinsic, inherent) rights.

        If American citizens living in Guam, Puerto Rico, etc. are governed by the Government of the Fifty States, it seems to me that principle dictates that they be given the same opportunity (through elections) to Consent to that Government in a manner equivalent to other American citizens living in the fifty States. If that involves paying Federal taxes, so be it.

        “Equal Laws, protecting Equal Rights, are the best guarnatee of Loyalty and Love of Country.”
        -James Madison-

      2. Bill – Actually, they do pay some federal taxes. They are exempt from federal income taxes, I believe, but they certainly pay FICA taxes, tariffs, & perhaps some other types of taxes. But I agree with you in principle that places that disproportionately benefit from federal largesse, relative to tax contributions, should have less say in fiscal policy-making. That is the principle you’re espousing, right? 🙂

  11. Retrocession to Maryland arguably requires agreement from both Congress and Maryland. Maryland has shown no interest in this proposal over the last 200 plus years. However, there ARE ways to accomplish the goal otherwise.

    There are two parts to DC’s current exclusion and subjugation under the (benevolent?) tyranny of our countrymen: exclusion from participation in national affairs, and lack of local autonomy.

    Here’s a couple of suggestions:

    1. Take whatever steps would be needed (constitutional amendment?) to allow individual denizens of DC to affiliate themselves with a state (much as other expatriate American currently do for voting) and vote absentee in that particular state. Each DC resident could declare affiliation/affinity with a state, for example, at the time of each Census, and the individual’s affiliation/affinity would be fixed on that state for the next 10 years, or until actual residence outside DC were established.

    2. Establish/clarify that Congress’ specific power over DC “in all cases whatsoever” would require a supermajority vote of both Houses and signature by the President, prior to going in to effect. Unless such provisions were met, DC would, as would each state, be responsible for their own affairs.

    I believe this would satisfy the desire (if somewhat partisan and unprincipled) of Republicans to deny DC citizens the vote unless the (Democratic) effect of such votes were minimized, and yet would meet the bare minimum desire of DC residents to equal treatment under the law.

    It would also at least minimally satisfy the fundamental first principle and central premise of our nation, that “just power derives from the consent of the governed”, a principle that has until now been honored only in the breach with regard to DC’s denizens.

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