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William Tomasko '13: D.C. - safe from democracy

Starting college is always a significant transition. Students are — often for the first time — experiencing roommates, sharing bathrooms with strangers, figuring out how to work laundry machines and spending months at a time away from their families.

For me, when I started my freshman year at Brown and began living in Rhode Island, I experienced another "first": I was suddenly living in an area with representation in Congress.

I was born in Washington, D.C., and, before coming to Providence, I'd never lived anywhere else. Living in D.C. has advantages. We get to enjoy free museums, like the National Air and Space Museum. We can use a clean, often-reliable subway system. Last summer, we even had the honor of sharing our city with a new cast of The Real World.

However, D.C. residents are also the only American citizens who pay federal taxes and serve in the military without getting to vote for members of Congress. "Taxation without representation" was a catchy slogan in the time of the Revolutionary War, but that undemocratic status still applies to the roughly 600,000 people who live in D.C.

The United States is the only country with a representative government that has decided to disenfranchise its capital city. From Paris to Baghdad, millions of other capital-dwellers have been trusted to have a voice in their national legislatures.

Voting rights in D.C. have expanded through history — thanks to the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, we have three votes in the Electoral College, giving us a vote in presidential elections. Unfortunately, we have yet to attain representation in Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., serves as an elected, non-voting delegate. She is allowed to vote on bills when they are in House committees but not when they are considered by the entire House.

The Founding Fathers were aware of the capital city's representation problem. Alexander Hamilton proposed that, as D.C. grew in population, it could eventually get a vote in Congress.

Modern critics of D.C. voting rights, however, are perfectly happy to deny representation to 600,000 Americans, a number greater than the population of Wyoming.

One leader in the struggle against enfranchisement has been Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona. As the Republican whip, he's played a role in fighting bills that would give D.C. a House member. In one 2009 floor speech, he argued that my fellow D.C. residents and I already have "representation in Congress — 100 senators and 435 House members." His claim rested on the fact that D.C. receives more federal spending per resident than any state.

However, as Kyl acknowledged in the same speech, much of that money is spent on federal buildings instead of going to local interests. And, even though the federal government owns 88 percent of Nevada's land (and 68 percent of Utah's), giving citizens of those states plenty of built-in federal support, they are still trusted to vote for their own representatives.

Furthermore, as thrilled as I would be to consider Kyl my own personal senator, his official Web site sadly discourages that dream of mine. His Web site promises to help Arizona residents get help with federal agencies and snag flags that were flown over the Capitol, but he doesn't seem to mention similar services he can offer D.C. residents.

We may happen to live in the same city in which they work, but the 100 senators and 435 representatives Kyl mentions must naturally focus their attention on the people who actually elect them.

Congress can take immediate action towards ending taxation without representation. One method would be passing a bill that gives D.C. a voting House member. Such a bill passed in the Senate in 2009, but was never considered in the House because of a toxic, anti-gun control provision.

Another potential solution would be a constitutional amendment. The amendment could grant D.C. its own House member, or maybe a House member and two senators. It could even go further and turn D.C. into a state.

Yet another fix would be giving D.C. back to Maryland. When the Constitution was ratified, Maryland and Virginia both ceded land to create a capital city, and Virginia's share was eventually given back. If D.C. (excluding a non-residential sector that would host the federal government) became a city in Maryland, we'd be instantly entitled to senators and a representative.

Plenty of solutions are out there, but for one of them to be enacted, political will must exist. According to one poll from 2005, only 18 percent of Americans know that D.C. is not represented in Congress. Once they become aware, however, 82 percent support giving us senators and a representative.

If enough awareness arises across the country and our leaders fully commit to pursuing one of these solutions, maybe one day I'll be able to be both taxed and represented. For now, I'll just have to appreciate Rhode Island and its congressional delegation.

William Tomasko '13 also appreciates the National Zoo.


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