Home Opinion Ralph Nader on D.C. Statehood
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Ralph Nader on D.C. Statehood E-mail

Statement of Ralph Nader

16 Sep 2000

I am running for President to take up the issues that the Democrats and Republicans won't speak to, to give voice to people whose voice is not heard inside the corridors of power.  More than 500,000 of those people live in the District of Columbia.  As the capital of this nation, the District is the symbol of the freedoms for which this nation stands. The light of democracy shines from the District, but does not illuminate this city.  The core is hollow.  The values of equality and political participation that the city promises are denied right here, in our nation's Capital.

Most Americans do not know, and many would find it hard to believe, that under our current system DC residents are second-class citizens.  The District is denied local control - Congress must approve the District's budget, and can override any action of the city government.  At the same time, District residents do not have even one voting representative in the Congress which controls them.  DC is effectively a colony, with all local decisions directly subject to change by a Congress largely out of touch with local realities.

Al Gore has supported DC statehood in the past, but for the last ten years has been silent on the issue.  George W. Bush is on the record opposing DC statehood.  Here is an important issue, involving the democratic rights of half a million people, and yet there has been no debate whatsoever, and most Americans are unaware of the issues involved.  It is a perfect illustration of why we need to open up the Presidential debates, not only to give third-party candidates a chance to be heard, but to give important ideas a chance to be heard, to give democracy a chance to function.  If invited to the Presidential debates, I will raise the issue of DC statehood, and challenge my opponents to promise to make District residents first-class citizens of the United States, or explain why they think District residents should continue to be denied rights that other Americans take for granted. 

Most people who live outside of the District do not know that DC citizens pay about $2 billion a year in federal income taxes - more than several states - yet cannot elect people to decide how their money is spent.  DC residents have served and died in our armed services over the last half century in disproportionately high numbers, but have no representation in the Congress that decides whether or not to go to war.  The U.S. is the only democracy in the world that deprives the residents of its capital city the basic rights granted to other citizens. 

Even more damaging than the lack of Congressional representation is the colonial-style control that Congress exerts over the District.  Adding one, or three, DC representatives to the 535 members of Congress would, by itself, do little to solve this problem.

Unaccountable power is by its nature abusive.  The places where unaccountable power is exercised are, and must be, dysfunctional.  Unaccountable power is uninformed.  Members of Congress don't know this city.  They don't know what's right for its people.  They approve the budget and all the legislation, but they do not themselves have to live with their decisions.  They foist pet projects on citizens who are perfectly capable of deciding these issues locally.  They prevent the District from taxing income where it is earned.  They regularly overturn the judgment of local elected officials - on public health, tax, budget, school issues - all with impunity.

Unaccountable power is destructive.  It chokes the ability and destroys the responsibility of people to govern themselves.  There is no place in the world where second-class citizens live side by side with first-class citizens and fare as well.  It just doesn't happen.  What happens to a community where the people cannot exercise authority, where there is no democracy?  People stop participating.  They don't run for local offices.  The civic culture of the community withers away. 

Examples of the negative effects of colonial-style Congressional administration abound: 

*  In 1992, DC lesbian and gays won the right to have domestic partners registered, along with certain health benefits for the partners of District employees.  That is, they won this right on paper.  In practice, Congress has consistently refused to fund this measure, and refused to allow the District to fund it from its own tax revenues, thus preventing the measure from taking effect.

*  In 1998, DC voters organized an initiative on legalizing marijuana for medical use.   After the election, Congress at first attempted to prevent the District even from counting the votes.  Democracy in action!  When the votes were finally counted, and the initiative approved, Congress simply overruled the initiative in their appropriations bill for the District. 

*  Just this summer, Senators Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wrote a bipartisan letter urging that the Capitol power plant abandon its plan to switch from coal to fuel oil and natural gas, thus reducing air pollution.  The District is a polluted, crowded city, which is not well suited for a coal power plant.  Senators Byrd and McConnell both represent major coal-producing states.

President Clinton has often objected to Congress's arbitrary use of its colonial power over the District.  Last September, he wrote a veto message chiding Congress for attempting to block District decisions that he correctly argued were local matters in the areas of:  advocating statehood, access to special education, abortion, and drug policy, among other issues.  But he has not publicly followed his argument to its logical conclusion and called for full local control and self-determination.

The results of Congressional interference and the inefficiency of colonial-style management are as distressing as they are predictable.  Poverty has increased, during a time of economic expansion, with the percentage of residents in poverty going from 16.6% in 1988 to an appalling 22.1% in 1998.  Even more astonishing was the growth in income inequality.  The richest 20% of DC residents earned 16.4 times as much as the poorest 20% in the late 80s, and 27.1 times as much in the late 90s.

I have often been criticized for saying that there are few major, real differences between the Democrats and the Republicans.  On this issue, the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is very clear: Republicans do not believe that District residents should have the right to full local control or self-determination, and they do not intend to do anything about the current situation; Democrats do believe that District residents have the right to local control, and they also do not intend to do anything about the current situation.

The District of Columbia has been taken for granted by the Democratic party for too long.  It is time to send a message.  Unfortunately, District voters don't have very many ways to send a message to the leaders in Washington, despite living in the shadow of the Capitol.  Your local representatives have been disempowered, you have no voting representatives in Congress.  Your best chance to send a message and make your voice heard is through your vote in the Presidential election.  A vote for Nader/LaDuke would show that you reject the politics of empty promises and demand that more than 200 years of taxation without representation come to an end.

I support full local control of the District of Columbia, outside of a small federal enclave.  Furthermore, I support a referendum for the voters of the District to choose their future status.  Statehood should be one of the options, as should a return to Maryland.  I support statehood, but more than that, I support the right of DC voters to choose their own future.

To those who say that the District is too small to be a state, and propose other solutions, I say that Congress has lost the right to impose its will on DC:  after 200 years of being second-class citizens, District residents have the right to choose for themselves.

To those who say that DC needs to get its house in order before we can move to full local control, I say, "voting is a right, not a privilege."  Local control is what will make it possible for the District to start fixing its problems.  With legislative and appropriations delays, regular governing confusion, and Congressional interference eliminated, the District would be more able to deal with its pressing problems.  The solution for the problems of democracy is more democracy!



Home Opinion Ralph Nader on D.C. Statehood

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