Democracy in D.C.

Democracy in D.C.

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 26 1997 12:30 AM

Democracy in D.C.

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Dear David:

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       One quick rejoinder: The Consolidated Federal Funds Report for FY 1996 from the Census Bureau reveals that 20 states received more federal funds than the District, which got $22.6 billion. To give you a sense: California received $156 billion; New York, $95.7 billion; Texas, $86.7 billion; Florida, $79.6 billion; Pennsylvania, $64.6 billion; Virginia, $50.6 billion; Ohio, $50.6 billion; Maryland, $37.1 billion; Washington state, $29.5 billion; and so on. Perhaps you're thinking, "Sure, but per capita ... " And yet, if you look at the District's numbers, you find that half of the federal funds committed in D.C. take the form of salaries and wages, most of which, as you know, leave the District untaxed. From my reading of it, salaries and wages constitute a much higher portion of the District's federal funds than any of the states, which get a lot more in the way of real pork: grants, contract awards, etc.
       Beyond that, I'm happy to leave it at the rough consensus you suggest. Democracy and efficiency are both significant values, but I have been amazed at how quickly so many people are willing to trade (a measure of) the former for vague promises of the latter. What happens when people lose all vote and all voice and the trains still don't run on time? I read today that the Control Board is resisting the D.C. Auditor's attempts to review its no-bid contracts and the relationships between Board members and various contract awardees: plus ça change ... It really is breathtaking to watch the senators and representatives from Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia decide matters about D.C. schools, and of course the Republicans have made it clear that they want to kick off their national school voucher "choice" campaign in the District, despite the fact that, so far as I can tell, all local elected officials oppose their proposals. (I don't know about the D.C. Schools' secretive "Board of Trustees," appointed by the Control Board.) I actually like the voucher idea, with one small amendment that the Republicans will never add: Private schools that accept the vouchers must admit all students who apply and, if there are too many applicants, they must conduct a lottery to decide admissions. The rhetoric in Congress is that poor kids in Anacostia should have the same "right" to go to Sidwell Friends as Chelsea Clinton has, but the reality is that all the "choice" will remain with the Sidwell Friends admissions officers. If we're going to socialize education in the way the Republicans suggest, then every child should have an equal right to go to any school. Otherwise, the voucher "choice" program is just another insidious assault on public schools.
       I want to close by suggesting some ways in which the District could actually benefit from its status as the nation's capital, "the city, not of a state, not of a district, but of a nation," as the Supreme Court put it in 1896 in a case called Grether vs. Wright. Consider the following for America's city:

  • A voucher program that all District parents would support: All students graduating from D.C. public high schools should be able to go to any state university at in-state tuition prices, a benefit that Congress can require as a condition for receipt of federal funds by state universities.
  • All future federal offices and departments should be located in the District, since their location here is the very basis for disenfranchising the local populace. District residents increasingly have the worst of both worlds, as they are disenfranchised because they live near federal offices but are in fact losing these offices to neighboring states because they are not represented and have no one to fight for their interests in the Senate. (David, surely you are aware that huge chunks of the federal bureaucracy have been stripped and removed to Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, etc., without any corresponding loss of voting rights to the residents of the affected areas.)
  • There should be a residency requirement for members of Congress who want to continue to be registered voters in their home states, as opposed to another state (like Maryland or Virginia). The constitutional logic of denying D.C. residents the vote is that members of Congress will automatically identify with their interests because they live in the city; so they should actually live in the city.
  • Congress should give District residents who have been registered to vote in other states the right to continue to vote in those states by absentee ballot--as if they were living abroad. Those persons born in the District or coming of age here could be granted the right to vote in Maryland congressional elections. This solution would give each Washingtonian a voting representative and two senators to contact about specific public-policy concerns. It would also give Delegate Norton some extra leverage to persuade members of Congress on local concerns. District residents actually voted in Maryland (or Virginia) congressional elections from the point of cession in 1791 until 1800, when a federal statute appeared to take this right away. So there is historical precedent. Furthermore, there is an analogy in the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975, which provides that citizens living outside the United States have the right to cast absentee ballots in federal elections in the state where they were last domiciled. Citizens living in the District would essentially have the right to cast absentee ballots in their state of former residence or in the state where District residents, as a class, were last permitted to vote.

        I thought I would close the way I began, quoting Tocqueville: "Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create; namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders. These are the true advantages of democracy."

Until we meet again,
Jamie

This dialogue grows out of Raskin's "Reform Without Representation: Congress' D.C. Takeover Won't Work Without Real Voting Rights," which appeared in the Washington Post Aug. 3. For a modified version of the piece, click here.