Wes Vernon
April 2, 2007
'Taxation without representation'? OK, how about no taxation?
By Wes Vernon

Under the Constitution, this nation's capital city is not entitled to have full representation in Congress. Many residents of Washington, D.C., complain of "taxation without representation," noting that is the very issue that prompted the Boston Tea Party and led to our independence in the first place.

This column proposes a remedy: Make D.C. a federal tax-free zone. More on that below.

Washington D.C.'s current status

First let's explore the Constitution and some history as to why it is that the people in the city that hosts our congressmen and senators are also the only people in the United States who are denied a meaningful vote of their own in the halls of Congress.

D.C. does have a delegate in the House of Representatives. But her vote in committee and on floor amendments counts only if that vote does not determine the outcome a rather silly gesture in and of itself. The delegate can contribute to the deliberations in committee and on the floor, so there is some point in having her there, albeit without the same rights as those elected by Americans in the 50 states.

The history

Here is what Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution says about that: "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the People of the several States [italics added], and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State legislature [again, italics added]."

Washington, D.C., is not a state. It is a city specifically created by Congress as a stand-alone federal municipality unlike other cities in the nation that are parts of their respective states.

In the seventies, Congress passed and sent to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment that would have made D.C. a state the only state in the nation with no rural areas. Only 16 states ratified it. The Constitution requires three-fourths of the states (38 of the 50) to approve constitutional amendments. Thus D.C. statehood fell 22 states short.

As to why the framers of the Constitution did not accord the city of Washington full voting rights on Capitol Hill and chose to make D.C. totally separate and apart from any state, I am indebted to Lee A. Casey, a Washington attorney who has authored a Heritage Foundation paper "The Constitution and the District of Columbia."

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote of the "indispensable necessity of compleat [Congressional] authority" that the "seat of government" be a "federal district" subject to Congress's "exclusive jurisdiction."

"Without it," Madison added, "not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings be interrupted, with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general Government, on the State comprehending the seat of the Government for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the Government, and dissatisfactory to the other members of the confederacy [other states]."

Not a paranoid delusion

Insults to the "public authority?" What on earth prompted that? It stemmed from just such an occurrence in the very early days when the seat of our government was in Philadelphia.

In June 1783, hundreds of unpaid and angry Continental soldiers marched on Philadelphia, "menacing Congress in Independence Hall itself." Pennsylvania refused to offer Congress any assistance in restoring order. After two days, Congress adjourned. Its members fled to New Jersey.

That experience made a lasting impression on the founding fathers who sought a "federal town," in which the federal government exercised full control, not beholden to any state.

The compromise

Both Pennsylvania and New York wanted the privilege of hosting the new federal government. Ultimately, a "southern" site was selected on the Potomac River. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson brokered a deal whereby, in return for being relieved of their burdensome Revolutionary War debts, Maryland and Virginia each ceded "ten miles square" on their respective sides of the river Arlington County and Old Towne Alexandria on the Virginia side and the newly-named Washington in Maryland. Thus was carved the city of Washington D.C. in 1800. In 1846, the Virginia portion of the city was "retroceded" to the Commonwealth.

Over the years, Congress has granted varying methods of home rule. In 1961, Congress had passed and the states ratified the 23rd amendment which then gave the District the right to participate in presidential elections but not in congressional elections.

In the late sixties/early seventies, Congress allowed a gradual transition of D.C. from a local government controlled by federally-appointed commission to a mayor and city council popularly elected by the city residents. However, Congress retains ultimate supreme authority over D.C., largely through its control of the purse strings, albeit allowing a certain measure of discretion.

AFP/Getty Images/Alex Wong Political ramifications

Politically, Washington, D.C., is solidly Democrat. Now that the Democrats have regained control of Congress, they have revived the idea of giving the District a full voting representative in the House. That would circumvent the Constitution, which clearly says the only way this can be done would be through an amendment ratified by three-fourths of the states. There is no doubt that this would give the Democrats one more vote in the House.

As a public relations ploy to shield themselves from charges of obvious self-serving partisanship, the Democrats offer simultaneously to grant one extra congressman to the Republican-friendly state of Utah. Mormons from that state who for the required two-year periods are scattered to other parts of the world on church missions are nonetheless legal Utah residents. It is claimed that the census has failed to include them in its surveys. Ergo, the conclusion that Utah should be granted four votes in the House of Representatives, as opposed to its current three.

Utah may have a valid case for increasing its constitutionally-permissive representation on Capitol Hill. It does not follow that the District of Columbia has a valid case for House representation, since that would not be constitutionally-permissive. The Constitution is not about partisan horse trading.

Moreover, regarding the purely political issue, I have lived twice in Utah and for many years have lived in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area (in the Maryland suburbs). And while Utah is overwhelmingly "Republican-friendly" and generally conservative, the Utah Democrat minority is considerably stronger than is the GOP minority in the city of Washington.

Recently, I told a Republican senator that if D.C. were to be granted a congressman, it would not take more than five minutes before the Democrats would then start agitating for granting the city two U.S. senators, in which case we would likely never see another Republican Senate in our lifetime.

The senator responded that the proper and most valid argument against D.C. representation is not that it would be bad politics for his party, but that it would be unconstitutional, which is why President Bush has been strongly advised to veto the bill if it gets to his desk. However, the senator also said the political scenario I posited was "absolutely right." Once D.C. is granted the right for full representation in the House, there is no way you can argue against giving it two votes in the U.S. Senate.

So what's the solution?

This whole controversy presents a golden opportunity to make the nation's capitol a national role model for crafting tax laws in such a way as to provide an engine for unstoppable prosperity.

"Taxation without representation?" Not an illogical rallying cry. That does not mean it is necessary to violate or circumvent the intent of the Constitution.

This column proposes that Congress consider making Washington, D.C., a federal tax-free zone. Legislation should be introduced in Congress to exempt the city residents from all federal income taxes, capital gains taxes, and corporate taxes.

Just think of the booming economy that would roar into the nation's capitol, on display for the entire nation and indeed the rest of the world a high-profile lesson on the benefits of low taxation. Though the income, capital gains, and corporate taxes would continue to apply to the rest of the nation, the 50 states would at least have evidence if any were needed that keeping taxes as low as possible is the surest road to more industry, more jobs, more buying power. Thus the idea could spread that as Ronald Reagan used to say "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Many commuters to D.C. who contributed to the steady decline in the city's population by moving to the suburbs would be encouraged to move back and revitalize inner city neighborhoods to live closer to their jobs. Those who stay in the suburbs would benefit from the additional jobs in the city.

Though the District includes high income people with government and government-related jobs, a significant minority of the population lives in poverty or near poverty.

Those people would benefit, too. A Washington, D.C., with new industries and corporations moving in, creating thousands of new jobs, enhancing a service industry to accommodate more people with more money in their pockets all of this could bolster a domino effect of the positive kind in D.C. and surrounding areas and (by extension) nationwide as Americans everywhere started asking their local and state officials, "Why can't we have that kind of prosperity, too?"

Congress would retain control of the local purse strings, and thus be able to short-circuit any D.C. plan to fill the new federal tax gap by raising local taxes by the same or similar amount.

Social Security taxes would be retained in D.C. because that money is earmarked nominally for a specific purpose, even though Social Security dollars now go into the general fund (a part of Lyndon Johnson's "guns and butter" legacy). Also gas taxes would be retained (but paid directly by those who use gas and oil to operate their own vehicles).

Socialists say "Uh-oh! Our snake oil isn't working"

It is clear that if that economic ball started rolling, liberals would be frightened and would likely move heaven and earth to prevent or discredit it. Welfare state-oriented politicians who have made hay with the class hatred card since the New Deal days do not want the poor or the middle class to better themselves without government handouts. If anything, they want as many poor people out there as possible. If low-income or welfare people acquire good jobs, and are no longer bound by the chains of poverty, they have less need for the politician who promises paradise by "soaking the rich." Liberal politicians would have to make an honest living. Heaven forbid!

D.C. shining city on the hill?

This column ran the above ideas past our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. In consultation with CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman, Myron Ebell CEI Director for Energy and Global Warming e-mailed us that "if the D.C. government responded the right way, abolishing federal taxes [in the city] would change the district from an economic laggard, dependent on federal handouts, to one of the main engines for economic growth. And then people [in D.C.] could stop complaining about not having a vote in Congress which is clearly forbidden by the Constitution."

Ebell calls our idea "a clever one." While we appreciate the compliment, it really is nothing more than simple economics. It is an example of why President Bush's term "compassionate conservatism" is redundant. Conservatism, per se, is by definition compassionate.

© Wes Vernon

Comments feature added August 14, 2011

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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