WASHINGTON — In 2009, when a staunchly conservative and visibly angry group of American voters launched a new political movement they called a “tea party,” I was more than a little confused by the association with a seminal moment in the early history of this country. The Boston Tea Party grew out of American colonists’ fury at a tax imposed by a faraway British Parliament whose members they did not elect.
In 21st-century America, however, residents of all 50 states get to vote for members of Congress, who have the power to impose federal taxes. Ultraconservative voters may have been disappointed by the results of federal elections in 2006 and 2008 because Republicans lost Congress and the White House, but they could not argue they didn’t get to vote.
There is only one place in the United States where citizens can justly complain that they suffer “taxation without representation,” as colonists in Boston famously argued. That’s in the District of Columbia.
As I end my sojourn here to return to Atlanta, I realize that I’ve adopted the District’s quest for fair representation. And I wonder why tea partiers have not taken up the District’s cause.
When it comes to local affairs here, congressional conservatives routinely flout their avowed determination to stop the bossy intrusions of an overweening federal government. Though federal legislation gave the city the authority to elect a mayor and council in 1973, Congress retains significant authority over municipal government.
Earlier this year, for example, President Obama received plaudits when he maintained federal funding for Planned Parenthood despite a fierce onslaught by anti-abortion Republicans. But Obama gave up some ground: To gain GOP support for his compromise, he sacrificed a District of Columbia regulation that allowed the city to use its own funds to pay for abortions to poor women. Local politicians had no vote in the matter.
Worse, residents of the District of Columbia have no voting representative in Congress. Since 1990, U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, has served as the District’s non-voting delegate. She may vote in committee meetings and speak from the floor, but she is not allowed to vote on the final version of most legislation. “It’s unfathomable” that residents of the District are still denied the full rights of a representative democracy, Norton told me.
When George Washington chose a mosquito-infested swamp on the eastern edge of the continent as the new capital of a fledgling country, he and his contemporaries believed that it needed a separate authority for its own defense. The Constitution mandates that Congress keep control over the federal district.
But since Washington’s presidency, the Constitution has been amended to extend the full rights of citizenship to those to whom it had been previously denied: black men, women, young adults. It is a glaring failure of representative democracy to restrict the rights of residents of the capital city.
A thriving metropolis of more than 600,000, the District of Columbia is no longer an overwhelmingly black enclave known as “chocolate city.” A decade or so of gentrification has brought a stream of youngish white professionals, while steady economic growth has attracted immigrants. Currently, the city has a population that’s about 51 percent black, 39 percent white and 9 percent Latino. (Other ethnic groups round out the numbers.)
The District’s voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic, however, a fact that may explain Republicans’ refusal to embrace the city’s cause. In 2007, Norton joined up with then-U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Utah, to sponsor a bill to add two seats to the House of Representatives — one for the District and an additional seat for Utah. It passed the House but was blocked in the Senate, where it met a Republican filibuster.
In 2009, Norton tried again. That time, however, then-Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., added a poison pill: an amendment that would strip away the District of Columbia’s gun control laws, among the strictest in the nation. The amendment met fierce resistance from Democrats, and the proposal has languished since.
“No American today can possibly stand for the idea that any part of the country that gets taxed doesn’t have the vote,” Norton said. Yet Congress allows that circumstance to continue in the District, whose residents pay, per capita, some of the highest federal income taxes.
A tea party, anyone?
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)