September 14, 2012

D.C. Republicans recently went to Tampa for the Republican National Convention with what was essentially a defensive message: Scandals and the intolerable conduct of our elected officials are no justification for limiting the rights of D.C. residents. Unsurprisingly, our efforts to win support for local budget autonomy fell on deaf ears. In the end, the Republican Party platform stated in no uncertain terms that the District should continue to be controlled by the federal government.

A week later, it was D.C. Democrats’ turn, and they stormed into Charlotte demanding, “Statehood now!” Their pitch was relegated to a fenced-in protest pen, set up to accommodate Occupiers and other fringe activists. Inside the convention, the D.C. delegation was placed in nosebleed seats that were truly the worst in the house.

How did we get here? In 2009 and 2010, Democrats were on top of the world. A few months into his term, President Obama’s party enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and held sway over the House. One would think that these Democrats would do something — anything — to advance the aspirations of the District residents who vote so reliably Democratic. But no. There was no autonomy, no voting rights, no statehood, no statues in the Capitol. Nothing.

Few Americans are aware of the special disenfranchisement that District residents are subjected to. We pay federal taxes but have no voting representation in Congress. Perhaps more unfathomable, we do not even control how our locally raised tax dollars are spent. No other city in America suffers our plight.

The result is predictable. Members of Congress have voters back home to answer to. For many, hot-button social issues such as abortion and guns will always matter far more than do the rights of D.C. residents. For others — particularly those who represent Virginia and Maryland — allowing D.C. statehood would be the equivalent of imposing a commuter tax on their constituents.

In other words, even if Congress cared about our gripes, its chief concern and responsibility would still be to voters who are not us.

When we try to fight for budget autonomy, the debate inevitably shifts to guns, abortion, gay marriage, needle exchange or some other social issue. And we lose every time when the battle isn’t on our terms.

It’s time to face reality. The federal government holds all the cards. D.C. Democrats need to start working with Capitol Hill Republicans for the achievable end of budget autonomy. Both sides must be willing to compromise a little. But the District probably needs to give a little more.

Also, the debate surely cannot be about statehood. That is a pie in the sky. If overwhelming Democratic political control of Congress and the White House didn’t produce statehood for the District, surely it is not going to happen when power is shared or when Republicans are in control. Republicans know full well that any state of New Columbia would reliably elect two Democratic senators long into the future.

While I support the concept of statehood for the District, close to zero Republicans on the Hill (and I’m probably being generous with the “close to”) support it. On the other side, many, if not most, Democrats likewise oppose statehood. Both Democratic senators from Maryland and both Democratic senators from Virginia oppose it. Powerful Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer recently spoke out against a commuter tax when a mere discussion on the subject was suggested by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

What the District needs is a reset moment. We need civil discussions with members of Congress. Rather than numerous public fights on abortion, guns and statehood, we need to do much more behind-the-scenes groundwork. And the debate must be confined to the simple matter of spending our local tax dollars.

The reality is that we have friends and foes on both sides of the aisle. D.C. leaders need to figure out what they’re willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of budget autonomy. Republicans will want something in return, as will Democrats. Maryland and Virginia are going to need assurances, too.

When the District is able to articulate where it is willing to compromise, we may actually get something. Congress has offered deals before, only to be turned down by the city. How much longer will D.C. residents tolerate a stubborn all-or-nothing posture that has gotten us nothing?

A better approach is to give Congress something it wants, get something we want in return and find a way to get more down the road.

The writer, a Republican, is a member of the D.C. State Board of Education.

Local budget autonomy: What is D.C. willing to give to get it?

Local budget autonomy: What is D.C. willing to give to get it?