Legislative Spotlight: Statehood and Autonomy for the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C. has served as our nation's capital for over 200 years, having endured war, economic depression, and a multitude of changes and challenges since then. Years of debate about where the seat of government should be located was resolved in 1790, but concerns regarding governance and administration of the city continue to this day. In this edition of The Taxpayer's Tab, National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) explores what some citizens of the District of Columbia envision for the capital's future and how House and Senate Members are attempting to address those concerns.
The Constitution stipulated that the seat of government would be in a district of no more than 10 miles square in size, and that Congress has the power to "exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District." The Settlement Act of 1790 resolved a debate over where this district should be located and designated an area along Potomac River, the exact location to be determined by President George Washington. The land was ultimately donated by the governments of Maryland and Virginia, although Virginia's portion was retroceded back to the state in 1846.
Two controversies stemming from the founding of the District linger to this day: local control and "taxation without representation."
The Constitution gave Congress complete legislative control over the District, but residents have long been pushing for more self-governance. Reforms over the years have bestowed more power to the city's voters and elected officials, but residents still live under a hybrid of home rule and federal oversight. Most recently in 1973, the Home Rule Act gave the District government autonomy to pass local laws and set a budget, but all remain subject to Congressional review. Efforts for more local control continue. In the 113th Congress, legislation has been introduced to increase the powers of local D.C. government:
- Continued Funding: To ensure the District is properly funded, H.R. 1196, the District of Columbia Local Funds Continuation Act, would allow city spending to occur based on the previous year's federal appropriation in the event Congress does not approve a new budget.
- Budget Control: H.R. 345, the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2013, was sponsored to completely separate D.C.'s financial management from Congressional oversight.
- Independent Judiciary: If enacted, H.R. 603, the District of Columbia District Attorney Establishment Act of 2013, would establish a District Attorney office with exclusive authority over D.C.'s local laws.
- National Guard Authority: H.R. 2321, the District of Columbia National Guard Home Rule Act, would grant the Mayor of D.C. the same authority over the D.C. National Guard that state governors have.
Each of the above proposals was sponsored by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) in the current Congress. According to BillTally rules, these bills are conditional upon further legislative action and would not necessarily increase federal spending.
Statehood and Full Representation
Soon after the establishment of the new capital, some legislators were concerned that District residents were required to pay federal taxes but were not represented in Congress, a situation reminiscent of one of the grievances that helped spark the American Revolution. The Constitution explicitly grants Congressional representation to the states, but not territories or the District. With the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1960, D.C. was permitted to have the equivalent number of votes (3) as the least populous state in the Electoral College for presidential elections.
Beginning in 1970, Congress permitted District residents to elect a Delegate to the House of Representatives. Delegates can serve on committees, offer legislation and amendments, but cannot vote on final passage of legislation. Washington, D.C. enjoys more rights than other American territories or protectorates but less than states. With the issue still unresolved to the satisfaction of many District residents, in 2000, the District government added the slogan "Taxation without Representation" to local license plates.
Some, including the D.C. city government, feel that the District should be granted statehood and/or the full range of rights associated with that designation. There has been a variety of legislation introduced in Congress reflecting some of the ways in which this could be achieved.
Of the seven bills that have been introduced in the 113th Congress, all of them ultimately require or call for the District to be granted full representation in the legislature, just as if it were a state admitted into the Union. Each measure aims to achieve that goal in slightly different ways:
- H.R. 292/S. 132: The most direct in its intentions, the New Columbia Admission Act outlines procedures to admit D.C. as a state and reshape the District's government into an independent, self-governing entity. With such an admission, D.C. would be renamed as New Columbia and granted proportional representation of at least one Representative and two Senators. The Act, introduced by Rep Norton and Senator Thomas Carper (D-DE), would increase federal spending by $9 million annually, according to current budgetary information.
- H.R. 2681: Rather than granting D.C. statehood, the District of Columbia-Maryland Reunion Act would return, or retrocede, the land encompassing the District back to the State of Maryland. The reunion would recognize D.C. as an individual service district and residents could vote in Congressional and Presidential elections as Maryland citizens. Sponsored by Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX), a cost estimate is currently not available.
- H.R. 362/H.R. 363: The District of Columbia Equal Representation Act of 2013 would establish a new Congressional and two new Senate seats, effectively treating D.C. as a state without official admission. The bills would establish normal representation for D.C. residents without making D.C. a full-fledged state. Using Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data, NTUF determined that Rep Norton’s bills would increase spending by $1 million annually.
- H.R. 299: Introduced by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the District of Columbia Voting Rights Restoration Act of 2013 would, for the purposes of voting in Congressional and Presidential elections, include D.C. residents' votes with those of Maryland. The District would be permitted to elect a Representative (officially from Maryland) to the House, but D.C. residents would not vote for their own Senators. CBO scored the measure in the previous Congress as a $1 million new cost to taxpayers.
- H.R. 2680: A more indirect way for D.C. to gain autonomy, the No Taxation Without Representation Act by Rep Gohmert exempts D.C. residents from paying federal income taxes, similar to current policy in other territories or protectorates. The bill serves to keep D.C. as a territory and remove constitutional concerns of imposing federal taxes without full representation in Congress. H.R. 2680 would have revenue effects on the federal government but would not change current spending.
Many of these legislative measures would require amending the Constitution; otherwise, they risk being struck down by federal courts. In the event that D.C. statehood is ever brought to a vote, legislators must consider the political and constitutional ramifications of potentially adding a new Representative and two new Senators. Although there are costs associated with some of the proposals discussed above, debate has primarily centered around the civil rights issues.
Photo Credits: nationalgeographic.com, thehillishome.com,and Wikipedia
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