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Just How Much Taxation Without Representation?

Over the past year or so the nebulous movement known as the Tea Party has co-opted many of the symbols of the founding fathers to fight against (among other things) taxation without representation. However, on Tax Day it is important to remember the one group of present-day citizens who know what “taxation without representation” really means: residents of the District of Columbia.

A refresher: Washington, D.C. has no Senator or Representative in Congress to advocate for its 588,000 District residents (541,000 of whom are citizens) because it is neither a state nor part of any state (by comparison the state of Wyoming, which has three votes in Congress, has 65,000 fewer residents and 16,000 fewer citizens). District residents contributed $17 billion in personal taxes to the federal budget last year. By comparison, Wyoming residents paid only $2.6 billion in personal taxes. D.C. does elect a non-voting Delegate (currently Eleanor Holmes Norton) to the House of Representatives, as do the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands (Puerto Rico elects a Resident Commissioner, which is very similar). However, these other territories do not pay federal income taxes.

Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of the lack of federal representation is that Congress retains its veto power over virtually all laws and budgets passed by DC’s City Council (including local taxes). Consequently some congressmen use the District to score political points in their home districts hundreds or even thousands of miles away, without regard for the will of District residents (as when Congressman Natcher of Kentucky withheld funding for Metro in the 1970s or last year’s fight over medical marijuana, needle exchanges, and abortion funding).  

Legislation is moving through Congress that would at least provide the District with one vote in that body. The D.C .House Voting Rights Act would increase the number of Representatives in the House by two, with one seat going to the District and the other to the state next in line to gain a seat based on the decennial census (currently Utah). The Act passed in the Senate in February of last year (though with the added humiliation of an amendment overriding District gun laws) and similar legislation has been introduced in the House and may move as early as next week. President Obama (and the First Lady) support it, as does almost 60 percent of the country. Granting congressional representation to a quasi-state like Washington, D.C. does raise some constitutional questions, but the legal arguments for it are strong enough that Congress should pass the D.C. House Voting Rights Act and let the courts settle the constitutionality question.

Will next year bring yet another tax day without representation for more than half a million of our fellow citizens? Only time will tell.