Today is primary day in Washington, D.C. Don’t expect a heated battle for Senator or Representative, though. D.C. does not have those offices. That’s because D.C.’s a federal city, not a state.
The District’s status has long been a sore spot with some of its residents. Advocates of D.C. voting rights routinely complain that America is the “only democracy in the entire world where the residents of the capital have no vote in Congress” and that “of all the capitals in all the world’s democracies, only Washington, D.C., doesn’t have voting representation or real home rule.”
Then there are the advocates who invoke the American Founding. The colonists objected to being ruled without their consent, hence the rallying cry “no taxation without representation.” District residents pay taxes but lack representation in Congress. Therefore, it is only just to give D.C. statehood and voting rights.
But this argument misses the larger principle behind the creation of the District of Columbia: the structure of our Constitution.
The Founders designed D.C. to protect the federal government. Since the federal government exercises certain powers over state governments, having the capital city located in one particular state would give that state tremendous influence over the federal government. Allowing one state to control the federal government would violate the principle of federalism.
D.C. residents still have representation and home rule through the local government: D.C. has a city council, a mayor, and local courts. As state and local governments must exercise their authority in accordance with the Constitution, so D.C.’s government must adhere to the Constitution and the Article I, section 8, clause 17 provision granting Congress authority over the District.
And let’s not forget that D.C. residents still vote in federal elections. The 23rd Amendment gives D.C. a voice in selecting the President and Vice President through the Electoral College, but it reiterates that D.C. it is not a state: D.C. receives the number of electoral votes “equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State.”
By seating the government in the federal district, the Framers ensured that knowledge and self-interest would coincide so as to promote the District’s needs in the same way that the franchise attunes legislators to their districts’ needs.
Recently, in an e-mail to D.C. residents, Chief of Police Cathy Lanier praised the introduction in Congress of the Cell Phone Theft Protection Act, which would require wireless commercial services to cut service to stolen cell phones. Lanier lauded “members of Congress who hear [D.C.’s] concerns and are ready to take action.”
D.C. is not the only major city to have problems with cell phone theft—thefts in Philadelphia, Seattle, and Oakland surpass D.C.—but D.C. is the only major city occupied by 535 Members of Congress. So when D.C. has a problem, it immediately gets Congress’s attention.
The Founders wisely crafted a federal district for the seat of government. They made the capital independent from, and therefore not subservient to, the authority of a particular state. Residents of the District of Columbia don’t have a Representative or Senator, but they still have the attention of Congress and the protection of the Constitution. If we take the Constitution seriously, the seat of the federal government cannot and should not be located in a state.