Alice Mitchell Rivlin, who has lived in Forest Hills for almost 40 years, has had distinguished careers in economics, federal government and DC affairs. She founded and led the Congressional Budget Office, headed the White House Office of Management and Budget, served as Vice-Chair of the Federal Reserve Board, and shaped, served on and subsequently chaired the DC Control Board during President Clinton’s administration. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Health Policy and a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
She is also the co-author of this Viewpoint published in the July 13th edition of the Northwest Current. Current Newspapers has given us permission to reprint the piece:
by Alice M. Rivlin and Walter Smith
When District voters cast their ballots for president in November, they will also be able to opt to become a state. Mayor Muriel Bowser, with the backing of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and the D.C. Statehood Commission, is leading a charge to turn most of the District of Columbia into the state of New Columbia.
The campaign features drafting a state constitution and boundaries for the small area that will remain under congressional control as the “seat of government.” The referendum in November would authorize D.C.’s elected officials to petition Congress for statehood. Then – the mayor hopes – the new president and Congress would create New Columbia, whose citizens would automatically enjoy the full democratic rights and responsibilities of citizens of the United States.
But to make that happen, D.C. must convince the rest of America that the world’s greatest democracy must not tolerate more than 600,000 residents of the nation’s capital living in a democracy-free zone.
The case for D.C. statehood is simple fairness. District citizens pay federal taxes, are subject to federal laws, and fight and die in the country’s wars, but have no voting representation in the Congress that imposes those taxes, passes those laws and declares those wars.
Even worse, Congress uses its constitutional authority to legislate for the country’s “seat of government” to decide purely local D.C. issues, including how the District can spend its own locally raised tax dollars. No other democracy denies self-government to the residents of its capital city. The United States shouldn’t do this either.
In recent years, many D.C. residents, including the authors, hoped Congress would mitigate the most unfair aspects of D.C.’s special status by giving us voting representation at least in the House, and local budget autonomy, but this did not happen. In 2009 the Senate effectively killed a bill to give D.C. voting representation in the House by attaching an amendment that would have repealed all the city’s gun safety laws and prohibited the local D.C. legislature from repassing them.
More recently, the House of Representatives passed a bill repealing a locally passed D.C. law that would give the city authority to spend its own tax money without congressional interference. That law was unanimously adopted by the D.C. Council, signed by the mayor, overwhelmingly ratified by D.C. voters in a referendum, upheld by the D.C. Superior Court, and was in substance endorsed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This denial of democracy can be fixed by statehood. The framers of the Constitution directed Congress to establish a “seat of government” no larger than 100 square miles. But the “seat of government” need not be nearly that large. In 1846, Congress retroceded almost one-third of the District back to Virginia. Congress can act with regard to most of the rest of the District, allowing it to become the State of New Columbia. This single act would bring voting representation and local autonomy to residents of the District and allow Congress to devote it attention to the area right around the Capitol, the Mall and the White House – the actual “seat of government.”
Most people in other states know little about D.C.’s situation. According to recent polling, 78 percent of Americans mistakenly think D.C. residents have congressional representation; when properly informed, 82 percent think the District should have a vote in Congress.
Many Americans do not know that Washingtonians pay high local taxes (in part because we are denied the right that all states have to tax the incomes earned in their jurisdictions by nonresidents). Some also have vague memories of D.C.’s financial crisis in 1995 and do not realize that its municipal finances have been responsibly managed for two decades and are now a model for other cities.
Hence, D.C. leaders should back the current statehood effort with a well-organized, well-funded, sustained national campaign to inform Americans throughout the country about the disregard for democracy in the nation’s capital so that they can encourage their elected representatives to fix it. We cannot expect Congress to do the right thing unless their constituents understand and support it. If D.C. is serious about becoming New Columbia, it will have to work hard and devote resources to building that grass-roots support in the rest of the country. This is the right moment to do that.
Alice M. Rivlin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former chair of the D.C. financial control board. Walter Smith is the executive director of DC Appleseed.