Editorial: History of our Congress

Published: 6/29/2018 5:55:44 PM

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of guest editorials running between now and July 4, our nation’s Independence Day. These essays were solicited by the Franklin County League of Women Voters for The Recorder from several especially knowledgeable and experienced members of our community, about issues as important to America today as they were when our country was born with our forefather’s Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago.

I cannot vote. I write as one of nearly 700,000 Americans who have no vote. And no, we are not those incarcerated for crimes. We are residents of the District of Columbia, the folks who drive around with license plates bearing the motto, “Taxation Without Representation.” I happen to believe, as did Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., that “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” You may not agree. But when you fulminate as Tax Day approaches each April, at least you can vote against those in Congress who’ve imposed taxes or misspent tax dollars.

In 1801, the District of Columbia was governed as an array of tiny towns, later as a county with two recognized cities, and most recently as a single city occupying the entire district. For nearly 100 years, three commissioners, appointed by the president, governed us. Since 1973, we’ve elected our mayor and a council of 13 members. We have some autonomy over our schools and local taxes, but our council votes are still subject to congressional oversight, or, less politely, meddling.

Recently we’ve been allowed three non-voting observers in Congress; we can now vote in presidential elections (three electoral votes!). We have no voice in the House of Representatives or in the Senate. We have no say in the federal taxation process. While you may bristle at legislation emanating from Boston that seems to bear no understanding of life in more rural western Massachusetts towns, you can still vote and be heard in Boston. Or Washington. We, in Washington, D.C., are subject to the whims of men and women elected elsewhere who take issue with our preferences: although D.C. residents overwhelmingly favor gun controls, Congress has chosen to block our council’s gun regulations. As you might have suspected, congressional compromise is often lubricated by a stiff drink, so liquor prices in the district are famously low because congressmen love a bargain. The same low, low pricing held for taxi fares for decades. Congress loved a free ride, and made certain lawmakers paid the minimum fare. So for D.C. residents, these issues of life, death and taxes remain out of our hands.

Congress’s involvement has often been harsh. While every district resident acknowledges and is proud of living in a city that belongs to the entire nation, our governance mechanism historically reflected less progressive thinking from less progressive parts of the country. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, freed black families moved to Washington. By 1900, Washington had the nation’s largest urban black population and enjoyed a deserved reputation as a cultural mecca for blacks. But Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) instituted segregation in all government agencies, and segregation in schools persisted until the 1950s. Racial division and Jim Crow practices were exacerbated by congressional intervention in matters of education, housing and city administration until the Home Rule legislation of 1974. In 1974, we elected our first mayor, an African-American, Walter Washington. Like the rest of the country, we’ve made progress in terms of addressing equality and opportunity for a more and more diverse population. In the 2010 census, we remained a city with a black majority, and we’re probably as prosperous as ever. We are able to tackle housing needs — including protecting housing from speculative redevelopment — and our schools continue to improve. Without complaint we bear the unique costs (beyond the begrudged federal reimbursement) for the expenses of hosting a constant stream of tourists, dignitaries and national events, whether marches, rallies, inaugurations or the occasional proposed military parade.

In the spring, as the cherry blossoms appear, we envy the license plates of tourists from all over the nation: “Aloha State” or “Nation’s Dairy Heartland” or “Home Means Nevada” or “Garden State.” Until I’m again a full-time Massachusetts resident, I’ll envy your “Spirit of America” plates, too. If you see one of our “Taxation Without Representation” plates, remember how we long for your right to vote. We admire that your taxes are determined with “the consent of the governed.” At the moment I live in a city that cannot vote. So until we, too, can vote, we’ll look to you to exercise your right, and to vote wisely for us.

This essay was written by Peter Beck, an architect who grew up in Washington, D.C., has lived and worked in western Franklin County for decades, and who is currently, temporarily living, again, in Washington.


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