Independence Day -- But Not for the District of Columbia

We've just enjoyed Independence Day in the nation's capital, a day when thousands of Americans came to the District of Columbia to celebrate the great freedoms claimed in the Declaration of Independence. Many of those Americans would likely be surprised--and saddened--to know that the grave injustices our Founders complained about in the Declaration and later rectified for the rest of the country are still going on in the District of Columbia.

Among the "repeated injuries and usurpations" the signers accused King George III of in the Declaration were: forbidding us "to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained," "imposing Taxes on us without our Consent," refusing us "the right of Representation in the Legislature," and "declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever."

The fact that all these same injustices are still being imposed on residents of the District is made strikingly clear by D.C. residents' current struggle to decide for themselves how to spend their own locally raised dollars, without waiting for Congress's approval, and without being subject to their local budget being repeatedly overridden by a Congress in which they have no voting representation.

This is the very stuff that led to the American Revolution and that most Americans probably believe is now well behind us in this country. But it isn't. The Congress of the United States continues to do these same undemocratic, un-American things to D.C. residents today. This upends one of the self-evident truths underlying the Declaration--that "Governments . . . deriv[e] their powers from the consent of the governed."

In hopes of correcting this manifest injustice, District leaders have for decades done what the signers of the Declaration did: they have "Petitioned [Congress] for Redress" and appealed to its "native justice and magnanimity." Unfortunately, Congress has consistently responded the way the Declaration said George III responded: by being "deaf to the voice of justice."

Why has this happened? Why does the Congress continue to deny basic rights to residents of the District of Columbia--more than 200 years after the Declaration was signed?

The cynical answer is that Congress does it because it can. The more generous answer is that Congress misunderstands its authority over the District of Columbia.

The authority Congress relies on to deny basic democratic rights to residents of the District of Columbia is the provision in Article I of the Constitution stating that Congress may legislate for the District "in all cases whatsoever." But this provision had a very narrow purpose and was never meant to give Congress the power to override determinations made by DC residents about purely local issues.

As James Madison made clear in the Federalist Papers (authored by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay), the reason the Framers of the Constitution gave Congress authority over the District was to make sure that Congress could protect the security of the national government in case of insurrections or uprisings that might occur in the capital city. The Framers gave Congress this authority because it was still fresh in their minds that the Continental Congress had been, according to Federalist No. 43, "insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity" when local authorities allowed rioters to threaten Independence Hall.

Thus, Congress's authority over the District is a narrow one and does not include overturning decisions made by the D.C. Council about local issues having nothing to do with national security. This is further confirmed by Madison's statement in Federalist No. 43 that "a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed" to residents of the capital.

But what good is a "municipal legislature for local purposes" if the Congress insists on reviewing and countermanding the actions of that legislature and doing so without even allowing local residents a vote? This is the equivalent of what George III was doing to the residents of our country nearly 250 years ago when the Declaration was written. The only difference is that Congress is doing it today only to residents of the nation's capital.

So what is to be done? Of course the District's elected leaders should continue to petition the Congress for redress, as the Framers did with George III. Maybe at some point the Congress will realize how out of keeping their actions are with what the signers of our Declaration of Independence and the Framers of our Constitution intended.

But maybe they will instead do what George III did: continue to be "deaf to the voice of justice." If that happens, the District and its leaders owe it to themselves and to our Founders to find other ways to advance their cause and demand that this injustice be righted.

As Frederick Douglass observed, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." And as Martin Luther King similarly observed, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability." It comes "through continuous struggle." Those are words the signers of our Declaration well understood. They are worth remembering on Independence Day, especially in the District of Columbia where the promise of that Declaration is still unfulfilled.