The federal government might not have shut down on Monday, but rush hour traffic stopped in our nation’s capital when the mayor of Washington, D.C., Vince Gray, already serving under a cloud of corruption, was arrested while protesting Congress’ budget agreement. Gray, city council members and more than 200 protesters blocked Constitution Avenue and diverted police resources, shouting, “Free D.C.” and “We can’t take it no more,” all in response to new restrictions on spending that Congress placed on the District of Columbia. But they should have been protesting outside Constitution Hall, not the Capitol, because that is where the Framers created the role for our nation’s capital that Gray is complaining about today.
Chief among Gray’s grievances are Congress’ funding of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program–which provides vouchers for low-income students to attend their school of choice, rather than be stuck in the District’s failing school system–and the prohibition against the use of government funds for abortion services. During the protest Gray said, “This is an absolute travesty. D.C. deserves to be free. All we want to do is spend our own money.” Well, actually, all Gray wants is to have his cake, eat it too, and let the federal government pay for it. Oh, and he also wants the District of Columbia to become the 51st state.
Gray’s idea isn’t a novel one. He’s not the first to protest, complain and call for statehood; the movement dates back decades. President Bill Clinton was a supporter, Jesse Jackson, a.k.a. the District’s “Shadow Senator,” was arrested in a pro-statehood protest, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting representative in the House, routinely introduces a statehood bill. And legislation has been offered time and time again seeking to grant the District a vote in Congress. In 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to grant the District the same vote as a state in Congress; it was never brought for a vote in the House and thus didn’t become law.
Even though Gray might not like to admit it, the District of Columbia is a city unlike any other, given unique treatment in the Constitution and under federal law. Attorney R. Hewitt Pate writes:
As most of us learned in grade school, the District was created in 1790 from ten square miles of land ceded to the federal government by Maryland and Virginia. The purpose of the District is stated in Federalist No. 43. The Framers of the Constitution believed that the federal government needed to have control over the seat of government – over the place where it was to conduct its business so that it would not find itself beholden to a particular state government for its day-to-day needs. The states, after all, are (or at least were then) independent sovereigns jealously guarding their political power against federal intrusion from Washington.
The Framers indeed had a plan, and that plan was not to grant the District of Columbia statehood. It was, instead, to create a “federal town” designed to serve the needs of the federal government, as all Members of Congress would share the responsibility of protecting a city they live and work in. Want proof? Just look at the Constitution. Article I, Section 2 states that “Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several States.” Had the Framers wanted to give the District a vote, it could have done so. And Article I, Section 8 grants Congress the power to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over the District.” Congress’ power and the District’s role are clear.
And though Mayor Gray might claim otherwise, the District of Columbia’s status is not without benefits. In the 19th Century, Congress funded the development of the city. In the 20th Century, it developed the National Mall and beautified the city. Today it funds more than 20% of the city’s operating budget and provides substantial funding for local amenities, including the subway. What’s more, in 2005, the city received $5.50 in federal spending for every dollar paid in federal taxes; more than double what any actual state receives. And remember the stimulus? Norton brags that the District received billions in federal funds, more than many states.
But despite all that, the complaints keep coming. Following Congress’ budget agreement with the White House, Norton declared, “Senate Democrats were willing to let the House Republicans treat them as second-class citizens” and that, “District residents and detainees at Guantanamo Bay were the only groups singled out in the bill, and the symbolism of the pairing and the contempt it shows for our city is not lost on our residents.” Second class citizens on par with Gitmo detainees? That’s a lot of hyperbole for one press release, especially when the facts and the law tell a wholly different story.
The angry rhetoric can flow, protests can go on, and the mayor can be arrested for blocking traffic. But the fact remains that the District of Columbia is how it is for a reason, as envisioned by the Framers and set forth in the Constitution.
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