17 July 2007

Washington, DC: Taxation with representation?

In a previous post I pointed out that Washington, DC, licence plates carry the words, TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION. There have long been efforts to do something about the anomalous status of the District of Columbia, including a failed 20-year-old attempt to make it the 51st state. Now there is a bill before the United States Senate to add two representatives to the House of Representatives, including one for DC. TIME Magazine reports: Will D.C. Finally Get a Vote? The original District of Columbia was established in 1790 on land ceded by Maryland and Virginia. (The region south of the Potomac River was returned to Virginia in 1847.) The reason for establishing a federal capital on "neutral" territory was to avoid favouring or empowering one state over the others, an idea borrowed for other planned federal capitals, such as Canberra and Brasilia. The difficulty with the American version of this is that it effectively disenfranchised the residents of Washington, who could not even vote for the president until the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961. Obviously something must be done to regularize the status of US citizens who pay taxes but are not fully represented in the centres of decision-making power.

Yet it's not clear that the current legislation is constitutional, which is animating the opposition. Not so incidentally, Republicans oppose the measure, as enfranchising heavily Democratic DC residents would almost certainly strengthen the latter party's presence in Congress. Accordingly President Bush may veto the bill.

The Civitas group before the White House

Here in Canada we have a National Capital Region, but it does not have a distinct political status like federal capital districts elsewhere. Encompassing the cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and Gatineau, Québec, residents vote in the elections of their respective provinces, in addition to casting ballots in federal elections for a member of parliament. I cannot honestly say that this arrangement has avoided antagonizing the other provinces, mostly because the capital's location only underscores further the reality of central Canada's dominance over the country's political life.

I personally favour granting DC residents congressional representation. Nevertheless, it might be wise for American policy-makers to look into how other federal systems, such as Australia, Germany and Brazil, have addressed the need for representation in their own capital cities. Americans can rightly be said to have invented modern constitutional federalism, but it may be that others have solved dilemmas that the founding fathers did not anticipate more than two centuries ago.

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