About those license plates ...

If you don’t live in the District of Columbia, you may not understand the significance of President Obama’s decision to display D.C. license plates inscribed “Taxation Without Representation” on his vehicles used for the inauguration and throughout his second term. In fact, some folks may believe the status quo – in which D.C. residents pay federal and municipal taxes but are not represented in Congress – is correct.

As a longtime D.C. resident, I have somewhat mixed feelings in this whole debate. One the one hand, I know that my citizenship in this country is not equal to that of residents of any of the 50 states because we do not have voting representatives in either chamber of Congress. We pay federal taxes at the same rates as state residents – we don’t get a rebate or exemption just because we don’t have a say in enacting laws that apply to us the same way they do to everyone else in the country.

Moreover, our elected municipal government levies taxes that we must pay but does not have the final say in how D.C. tax money is spent. Congress can override our laws, including budget provisions, and frequently uses these votes to impose social dictates that go against the will of the city’s population. Among the social issues that have been addressed in this way in the last few decades are school choice, gun control, and AIDS treatment and prevention, just to name a few. The issues change with the leadership of the two chambers and their committees with jurisdiction over D.C. matters. What doesn’t tend to change is their idea that they can use the District as a laboratory for new ideas or a step toward achieving social goals that are outside the norm in the country as a whole and against the wishes of the only citizenry to which the measures apply.

In all probability our nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, provides constituent services to D.C. residents as well as state representatives, and if she’s not doing so, we certainly could decide to vote her out. This is where my “mixed feelings” come in – part of me says, “what difference does it really make?” Sometimes I believe it would be just as well for us to be exempt from paying federal taxes, like Puerto Rico, Guam, and other U.S. territories.

But then I think of the unfairness, the lack of equality I feel with U.S. citizens who live in a state. When the system was set up, D.C.’s population was nowhere near the hundreds of thousands who inhabit the city today. The changes Congress enacted in the 1960s and ‘70s allowing us to vote in Presidential elections and for municipal leaders don’t go far enough in acknowledging that our city is no longer the small borough it was in the early 1800s when the federal government set up shop here. Our young men must register with the Selective Service System and were subject to conscription until the draft was eliminated after the Vietnam War. We pay federal taxes, and we don’t have a vote when Congress decides how we are to spend our local tax money. Fundamentally, something is wrong here.

 I remember having this discussion with my Uncle Dan several years ago. He asked me why I held the political view that D.C. residents should have voting representation in Congress when the Constitution established the District of Columbia as a “federal city” under the exclusive control of the Congress. I’m not sure exactly how I presented my case, but I was surprised to hear him acknowledge afterwards that my arguments were causing him to rethink his position.

I’m sure there’s a political side to the change in President Obama’s stance on displaying D.C. license plates that say “Taxation Without Representation” on his cars – it’s not just that someone made a good case to him, as I must have all those years ago in discussing this with my uncle. Even so, I have to take it as a hopeful sign – a step in the right direction. First, Dan Schusterman. Now, Barack Obama.

Who’s next?