As proud residents of the District of Columbia, 2011 brought us difficult news: elected officials used public funds to buy SUVs. One councilmember siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money for himself, agreed to return it after he was caught, and then saw his house raided by federal agents and his assets seized. Another councilmember quietly pushed through first-in-the-nation Internet-gambling legislation (of questionable legality) without disclosing that he and his law firm would benefit financially. For many of us, this was an embarrassing year, yet at the start of 2012, all remain in office.
At the same time, half a world away, the outlook was more hopeful. Tyrants were defeated by popular uprisings and direct citizen action. Wars ended as mass movements for democracy began. For the first time, an Arab woman received the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for democracy. The global financial climate may be disconcerting, but democracy is on the move -- just not here in D.C. Amidst seemingly impossible-to-stop global progress, the District of Columbia appeared to move backward.
Corruption in D.C. is not limited to local D.C. politics. The U.S. Constitution ensures the right to vote for all citizens because in a democracy, few things are more corrupt than a population governed without its consent. Yet the 600,000 citizens of the District of Columbia (larger than Wyoming by more than 50,000) still do not have the right to elect members of Congress and have little say in the laws their Congress passes.
But the reverse is not true. Congress can and often does step on the right of D.C. residents to govern themselves. Just the other week, politicians from states with full voting representation pandered to their base, hundreds of miles away, by imposing their own ideological agenda on D.C residents who have no voice.
As a result, a new law will prevent residents of D.C. -- and only D.C. -- from using their own tax revenue to fund abortion services for the poor. Make no mistake: these restrictions will not directly hurt the wealthy or even the middle class. Instead, this was a targeted attack on D.C.'s most defenseless, those least able to fight back. It was also a rebuke of our right to fulfill a community's basic duty: to care for its poor. It was also an attack on the rights of all of us who believe that helping our neighbors is both our responsibility and our right.
But Congress was not done putting its heel on the throats of D.C. voters. It also banned the District from using federal funds for successful syringe-exchange programs, which have been proven to prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV/AIDS without increasing drug use. A Department of Health report found that D.C.'s exchange program reduced HIV transmission from dirty needles by 60%. The "laboratory of innovation" politicians often fetishize was actively decreasing the spread of AIDS when, for political gain, Congress chose to increase in the spread of HIV/AIDS. This is irresponsible. It is wrong.
"Of all the forms of inequality," Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." Congress has no business making that injustice more inhumane. It certainly has no business telling residents of the District that they cannot reduce the injustice themselves.
Congressional meddling with local D.C. laws must end because it is just another form of corruption. Yet, as long as D.C.'s elected officials continue to embarrass the city with serial ethics scandals, we will have trouble convincing the rest of the country. As long as our Council cannot pass meaningful ethics reform, as long as more than half of the Council remains under investigation, the goal of home rule will remain out of reach.
I am a not only a D.C. resident and voter. I am also an at-large candidate for the D.C. Council. I am a candidate because I know our fight for self-governance must be paired with a determination to rid our city of corruption. We cannot do one without the other. We must do both.
We must pass real ethics reform that bans councilmembers' slush funds, not expands them. We must require that councilmembers do their jobs full-time, so they cannot use their positions of public trust as leverage for more-lucrative, simultaneous employment as lobbyists. We must make campaign contributions -- especially from corporations with financial interests in Council business -- transparent, so we will know which councilmembers are bankrolled by which corporations when they push legislation through the Council.
We must also continue the fight for home rule. This year's progress shows democracy is all but inevitable -- eventually. It also shows democracy can be pushed, prodded, demanded. While we work together to decrease the influence of corruption in D.C., we must also fight to increase the influence of D.C. residents until no citizen is denied the right to vote simply because she lives in the nation's capital. That fight begins with cleaning up local corruption. It does not end until we have full voting rights.