Monday, September 17, 2007

"Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death"

We all know those famous words attributed to Patrick Henry, spoken as the framers prepared to wage war in order to ensure their freedom; to ensure the delivery of what they called their "unalienable rights." We indeed did fight a war to obtain those freedoms. At last free of an oppressive monarchical tyranny, America set of into the uncharted waters of forging a new democratic government which would become, as John Winthrop so aptly put it, a shining "city on a hill." Since the time of our founding, America has gone to war many times, ostenisbly under the banner of delivering the oppressed from some tyrannical ruler; we seem to have set before ourselves the task of "making the world safe for democracy," to quote President Woodrow Wilson. Even today this brave country is fighting a war which the President claims intends to "export democracy." Even as Mr. Bush continues to spend billions of dollars on America's new form of confrontational foriegn policy, however, he has promised a presidential veto to a bill which would put the balm on a wound that has been festering in the very fabric of America's democratic tradition since 1801. In that fateful year, which saw the discovery of ultraviolet radiation and the death of the infamous Benidict Arnold, the citizens of the District of Columbia lost their right to vote for the very legislative authority which governed them. In 1801 the shining city on Capitol Hill, the one which has been deemed the "Federal City," the one which represents in its very design the tenets of democracy, the one city built for all Americans became the single place in America where free citizens of the republic became disenfranchised. Even in the years since as blacks, women, and 18-21 year olds gained the right to vote, citizens of the District were denied the very basic principle intrinsic to the foundation of this nation: democracy.

One of the chief causes of the American Revolution was the idea that citizens were taxed by the Crown, yet they had no say in how these revenues were spent. Indeed, Washingtonians can make the same claim. Even though they pay the second-highest (counted as if DC were a state) per capita amount of federal income taxes, they have no representation in Congress, which has the power of the purse. Even taxes collected locally are not really under the jurisdiction of the locally elected government. Congress can spend DC's tax revenues however they please, even completely overriding the Mayor and Council's budget. This is a travesty which New York State cannot do to New York City; Illinois to Chicago; or California to Los Angeles. Yet it is a denial of the basic right to representation which the US Congress can do to the citizens of the District of Columbia. As to the District's locally elected government, which has only been around since Congress decided to let the citizens have some say in 1973, Congress reserves the right to overrule any law and change any part of the budget at its own discretion; and it frequently does so. Congress also has the ability to remove the positions of the locally elected officials. Imagine that the citizens of another great American city like Seattle or Miami went to the polls and elected a Mayor and Council which the federal government then decided to remove at its discretion. It is obscene that Congress wields this power over tax-paying, law-obiding American citizens; and it is time that it reliquished this tyrannical power.

The District is home to many full-fledged American citizens 50% of whom have lived there for more than 20 years. As a matter of fact, Washington, DC has a population higher than that of Wyoming, and in 1969 when Richard Nixon called for full representation, DC's population was larger than that of 11 states. Population comparisons aside, America is denying basic freedoms to over 580,000 of its citizens. Some have argued that because many choose to live in DC, they are voluntarily giving up their vote. The idea that an American can be stripped of his or her vote is rediculous. Would we be so keen on this discrimination if it were the citizens of Wyoming instead? Besides which, many citizens of DC were indeed born there. Even if we were to go back in time to the very founding of the District, we would find that there were those who already lived in two pre-existing cities (Georgetown and Alexandria) and the surrounding farms who were suddenly stripped of their vote 11 years after the city was sited at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. The fact of the matter is that there are many people who live in the District without whom our seat of government could not function. They are the policemen, garbage collectors, bus drivers, and federal employees who have made a permanent home in the district, yet they are systemically denied the right to vote.

Others argue that the citizens of the District should be denied the right to vote because the District is not a state. Even though our nation's capital is not called a state, it is treated as one by over 500 federal laws and its citizens must serve on federal juries and register for the Selective Service program. Many have fought and died in every war the United States has ever fought since its creation, and although they have spilled their blood in the name of freedom on foriegn soil, they never had it at home. Though the District is small and urban, that is no excuse to deny the right to vote of any American citizen. Would we consider stripping Rhode Island of its democratic process because it is smaller than all of the other states? Size is no matter when it comes to Congressional representation, the proportion is equivalent in the House of Representatives; in the Senate California has the same number as Wyoming, and yet with an even greater population, the District is denied representation. Some argue that giving the District voting rights is unfair to other cities (like New York with its 8 million residents) but that is not true. New York's citizens already get a say in how this country is run, just as the citizens of every other town, county, and city in the country; New York also has the added benefit of not having its budget and laws permanently under threat of removal. Furthermore, some have argued that giving DC a vote would amount to a partisan grant of several votes to the Democratic Party. While it may be true that citizens of the District tend to be more liberal than conservative at the moment, that is no reason to deny them the right to vote. Congress would certainly not consider removing Massachusetts' Representatives and Senators because they are certain to be Democrats; nor would they consider doing the same to Utah's Republican delegation; treatment of the District of Columbia should be the same.

Washington is often referred to as belonging to all Americans. To some degree that is true. There is certainly an air of pilgrimage to the tourists who populate our nation's capital for much of the year; and the monuments and memorials are truly there to be seen and experienced by all of the citizens of this country. However, the District also belongs to the people who live in it. The almost 600,000 residents own houses and businesses and in most respects, Washington is indistinguishable from any major American city. But while the residents of Denver and Atlanta can vote on how the tax dollars spent in their neighborhood are spent, people in the District can't. The fact of the matter is that every other jurisdiction in the United States sends representatives to Congress who are accountable. Yet those who rule the district are not accountable to those they govern. While it may be in the interest of the citizens of Georgia or Indiana for the granite on the Lincoln Memorial to be replaced, it is surely no matter to them when their representatives, as members of Congress, decide that the District's recreation program shouldn't include a new park for Columbia Heights or an expanded police precinct in Anacostia. Would it be fair for California's delegation to Congress to decide where road money was spent in Maine if the citizens of Maine had no say? It is not fair, then, for representatives to deny the basic right to democracy which the citizens of the District of Columbia have had removed without due process since 1801.

The framers never intended to disenfranchise the American citizens living in Washington. However the vote is given to the citizens of DC, it is imperative that it be given. Tuesday, September 18, 2007, Congress will be voting on a bill which would give the District one vote in the US House of Representatives. President Bush has threatened to veto this bill, but you must encourage your congressperson to vote in favor of DC voting rights. This bill will not make DC a state, nor will it give them the full representation that they deserve. I feel that it is important to preserve the District as an administrative division; however I think that a feasible compromise would be to allow the citizens of the District to vote as they did before 1801: with the state their territory was taken from. At present that would mean voting as citizens (and being counted thusly for purposes of representation) of the state of Maryland, since the section south of the Potomac was retroceeded to Virginia in 1846.

Regardless of how it's done, Congress and the President must end this injustice. No American should be stripped of his or her rights without due process, and it is time that the United States stop being the only democratic country in the world to deny the right to vote of the citizens of its capital city. Over the past week, I have biked on avenues bearing the names of all 50 states. Americans living in each of these states have the right to vote, but there is one sign missing from the pictures shown in my previous posts.

It is time for healing for that scar on the face of American democracy. It is time for the President to declare war on tyranny right here in the United States. It is time to import democracy. For some Congressmen this vote may be a simple matter of politics or principle, yet for the people of the District of Columbia it will be a matter of freedom or tyranny, of voting or disenfranchisement, of representation or oppression.

Indeed, give me liberty or give me death.

1 comment:

Matt' said...

Just an update:

On Tuesday, September 18, the Senate refused to consider the bill. The House approved it earlier this year, but with only 57 votes there were not enough votes to avoid a fillibuster.

Several Senators were quoted as saying that the Constitution gives people "of the several states" the right to vote. Therefore, they have decided to deprive American citizens of the right to vote because of symantics.

In an unexpected vote, however, they did decide to strip the people of Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts of the right to vote because those states decided to be hoity-toity and be called "Commonwealths."

I am, of course, being facetious. However, just as the offical title of these states (commonwealths) has no impact on their participation in the Republic, the fact that Washington is called the "District" of Columbia should make no difference.