Since the founding of our republic, citizens of the District of Columbia have lacked various democratic rights enjoyed by their fellow Americans who live in full-fledged states. During the Covid-19 pandemic, that fundamental inequality has proven deadly, and must be addressed as soon as possible.
Without statehood, D.C. is limited in its ability to raise revenue, since all of its laws are subject to Congressional approval and much of its land is federally-owned and therefore untaxed. Despite having state-like duties, from education to road maintenance, the District is explicitly barred from taxing the wages earned by non-residents who work within its borders, unlike any other state. The prohibition on such state revenue collection practices makes it hard for the District to respond to crises such as the pandemic.
Although it is normally treated like a state in federal formula-based funding programs, that privilege is subject to the whims of lawmakers. In the pandemic relief bill that passed last March, D.C. was treated like a territory instead, and therefore received half the aid to which it was entitled. That represented a loss of $755 million, which was only made up for later after intense lobbying.
It is sickening to see how a nation founded on the ideal of equal representation has disenfranchised the residents of its own capital. D.C. has nearly 700,000 residents, more than the population of Vermont and Wyoming. D.C. residents also pay more taxes per capita to the federal government than their counterparts in any other state, yet we don’t have a voice in Congress. We are treated as second-class citizens, despite having the same responsibilities as other states, such as serving in the military if a draft were to be reinstated. And this is clearly against the consent of the governed: In 2016, 86% of D.C. residents voted in favor of becoming the nation’s 51st state.
Recent events have only highlighted further the perils of keeping D.C. an unequal territory. During the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, since we lack control of our own National Guard, a mob was able to terrorize the Capitol building with little resistance. Not only did this situation pose a grave physical threat to members of Congress, it was also likely a Covid-19 super-spreader event. Shock over the lack of preparedness by federal authorities for an openly planned attack has reinvigorated residents’ demands for the same Congressional representation that all other Americans enjoy.
While electing two senators with full voting rights will not put an end to the traditionalist vehemence on display at the Capitol that day, representation will provide residents with a voice in debates that have profound consequences for their lives.
Rep. Oye I. Owolewa has served as one of D.C.’s non-voting members of Congress since 2021.