Taxation without representation in DC

September 23, 2019

By Gerhard Ottehenning

WASHINGTON, D.C. — D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser provided testimony before Congress on the merits of D.C. statehood last week, bringing the issue to the House of Representatives for the first time in over 25 years. Despite widespread opposition outside of the District, statehood holds the distinction of being one of the few issues that unites most D.C. residents. While the D.C. government remains mindful of political headwinds, its goal is to keep the issue at the forefront of voters’ minds in 2020, should the Democrats retake the U.S. Senate and presidency. In a crowded field of headline-grabbing policy proposals, that may prove no easy task. 

The popular D.C. slogan “taxation without representation,” emblazoned on the District’s license plates, encompasses D.C. residents’ primary complaint: Washingtonians currently elect all of the officials that run the city (e.g. the mayor, D.C. city council), but Congress ultimately has the final say on D.C.’s laws.

In 2016, D.C. residents participated in a symbolic referendum on statehood. The New York Times reported that 85.8% of voters approved the measure. A non-scientific poll of SAIS students found most students either in favor of statehood or undecided. Second year HNC Certificate-SAIS MA student Kevin Acker said, “I am indifferent, but that’s only because I don’t know enough about it. The key question for me would be, would statehood better equip the D.C. government to provide public services to its residents?”

D.C. statehood has the backing of most of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. However, the path to statehood faces two hurdles: In a recent Gallup poll, 64% of Americans opposed D.C. statehood, and the partisan lean of D.C. guarantees that Democrats would gain a congressional seat and two senators—ensuring fierce opposition from Republicans. 

Opposition to D.C. statehood should not be interpreted as a broader reluctance by the American public toward admitting new states into the Union. A July Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans were in favor of Puerto Rico becoming a state. Nor can the blame be laid solely on partisanship. The majority of conservatives, moderates and liberals surveyed were not in favor of D.C. statehood. 

In an interview with Politico, Gallup senior editor Jeff Jones drew a link between D.C. statehood and the public’s opinion of the federal government. “People aren’t very positive about the federal government, so it’s possible some of that rains down on D.C.’s population and local government.” It’s also possible that the public falls back on their opinion of the federal government due to a lack of information. Acker said, “if the people surveyed have only done as much research on this as I have or less, then they don’t know enough about it to make that judgement based on facts.”

Despite this opposition, Mayor Bowser took a strong stance during the congressional hearing on H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act. She said, “It should not matter what our politics are or what yours are—that is beside the point. The point is that to continue to deny statehood to the 702,000 residents of Washington, D.C. is a failure of the members of [Congress] to uphold their oath of office. I would, likewise, fail to do my duty by not forcefully advancing our statehood petition…This is America, and Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law, and that’s why we are demanding statehood.”