TOPICS > Politics

Budget Battles Reignite Animosity Between Congress, D.C. Government

April 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Kwame Holman reports on the historically tense relations between Congress and the District of Columbia's residents and local politicians. The two worlds collided recently when Congress and President Obama reached a budget agreement in part through provisions affecting abortion services and private-school voucher programs in D.C.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a report on Congress’ rocky relationship with the city it calls home.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman is the reporter.

KWAME HOLMAN: Washington, D.C., actually is two different worlds. There’s official Washington, the nation’s capital, home to the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court.

But there’s also the District of Columbia, D.C., a city like any other, with 600,000 residents, historic neighborhoods, schools and parks. And every so often, those two worlds collide.

The two Washingtons were thrown together earlier this month when Congress and the president finally reached an agreement to fund the federal government through September and avert a shutdown. Two provisions affecting the district were critical to closing the deal: a prohibition on the district’s using its own funds to pay for abortions for poor women and a requirement that the city reinstate a controversial private school voucher program.

House Speaker John Boehner cited both measures as Republican improvements to the compromise.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, speaker of the House: It bans taxpayer funding of abortion in the District of Columbia, ensuring that taxpayer funds won’t be used to fund the destruction of human life. It saves the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, giving thousands of children here in this city a chance at a decent education.

Is it perfect? No. I would be the first one to admit that it’s flawed. Well, welcome to divided government.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama and Senate Democrats accepted the D.C.-related measures as a way of getting Republicans to back off other targets, such as funding for Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses.

But the deal incensed city officials, who complained they weren’t even consulted. Washington’s mayor, Vincent Gray and six city council members blocked Constitution Avenue near the Capitol to demonstrate their anger and were briefly arrested.

Speaking to the NewsHour later that week, Gray said the budget deal was just the latest example of congresses and presidents casually meddling in the district’s affairs.

VINCENT GRAY, D, mayor of Washington, D.C.: It just appears to me that the District of Columbia was thrown under the bus in terms of reaching that compromise. And we — we’re sick and tired of being treated like second-class citizens in this nation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Since the nation’s founding, Washington has existed as a hybrid political entity. Until 1964, residents could not even vote in presidential elections. It took a constitutional amendment to bestow that right.

A few years later, Congress granted limited home rule, allowing D.C. voters to elect a mayor and city council, but required all legislation, including the city’s budget, be subject to congressional approval.

Washingtonians’ push for greater autonomy recently has focused on representation in Congress. The city has a delegate in the House, who currently cannot vote on legislation. In 2009, however, Congress was on its way to approving a bipartisan plan that would give Washington a full-fledged House member, while creating another seat in Utah. But the effort stalled after Senate Republicans attached an amendment that would have stripped away gun restrictions in the district.

JAMIN RASKIN, American University: There’s a serious problem here, when you have hundreds of thousands of taxpaying and draftable American citizens who are governed by the laws, but have no say in the making of the laws.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jamin Raskin teaches constitutional law at American University and has argued a case before the Supreme Court on behalf of D.C. residents seeking a voting member of Congress. He says denying the district a representative in Congress runs contrary to the country’s founding principle.

JAMIN RASKIN: The American nation was created against the idea of virtual representation, that the people who lived in the colonies would be represented in parliament by other people’s representatives. We rejected that as a country. Everybody needs their own representatives. You can’t trust other people’s representatives to do your bidding and to represent your interests effectively.

KWAME HOLMAN: But many conservatives oppose D.C. autonomy, arguing it is unconstitutional for the district to have a voting representative without being a state.

Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ, R-Utah: Well look, I understand how there are people that are emotionally charged on both sides of this issue. But the Constitution is crystal clear and — and that’s what we should living by. And until it’s amended, I think we continue on the current trajectory.

KWAME HOLMAN: But that presents a real problem, says Matthew Spalding, a constitutional scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

MATTHEW SPALDING, Heritage Foundation: It can’t be in another state, which is why they created the district in the first place. So, how do you solve this dilemma, in the one hand that recognizes this question about representation, and the necessity of having the district, the federal government, not in a state, really in a place where it has its own sovereign jurisdiction?

KWAME HOLMAN: Regardless of the reason many D.C. residents say the status quo is unacceptable.

LEAH TREAT, resident of Washington, D.C.: I find it infuriating that lawmakers take our tax money and make laws for the rest of the country and impose ones on D.C. that we don’t want, without any representation.

ANTHONY SELBY, resident of Washington, D.C.: That’s taxation without representation. And, you know, that’s part of our Constitution. And that should be, you know, be enhanced. You know, we should be able to implement our thoughts and ideas, just like everybody else in the rest of the country.

MARK PLOTKIN, WTOP: D.C. really means “doesn’t count.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Local news radio commentator Mark Plotkin has advocated on behalf of D.C. voting rights for decades. He says nothing will change until residents turn up the heat on Congress and the administration.

MARK PLOTKIN: It has got to be beyond politics. And it’s also got to be the president and the people that are against this have to be embarrassed properly and their lives have to be made uncomfortable in a constant, incessant way.

KWAME HOLMAN: Raskin says that might be a tough sell, given the city’s legion of transplants, workers who come to Washington for jobs with the government, and the prudent sensibility of many longtime Washingtonians.

JAMIN RASKIN: That’s a more likely place that you would find a real sense of indignity and insult about what’s taken place, but even there, there is a certain kind of identification with the government, civil service and doing things in a normal and rational and civilized way. And that doesn’t mean going out and protesting and making a big ruckus.

KWAME HOLMAN: But without a big ruckus, there is little impetus for lawmakers to relinquish their control over district affairs. And that leaves D.C. residents wondering what the next step might be.

For advocacy groups such as D.C. Vote, which sponsored a pro-D.C. democracy mural painting this week, the primary focus at the moment is on protecting the rights they already have, with a long-term goal of full representation in the House and the Senate.

Heritage’s Spalding has another suggestion for them: Take a cue from your license plate.

MATTHEW SPALDING: No taxation without representation. How about no taxation? Let’s make the District of Columbia truly very attractive economically. And Congress should take advantage of its responsibility over the district, its exclusive jurisdiction, not merely as a — kind of a little brother, kind of keeping them in line, but really make it into a grand city, as it should be.

KWAME HOLMAN: Perhaps then other states would want to be more like the district, instead of the other way around.