Go Tell It On The Mountain….or at least tell it to Capitol Hill: let the people of D.C. go!
The image of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray in handcuffs last week was a startling reminder that full democracy remains an elusive concept for 600,000 citizens of the United States who just happen to live north of Southern Avenue, west of Eastern Avenue, south of Western Avenue, and east of the Potomac River. The mayor was arrested along with members of the D.C. Council and other citizens for blocking Constitution Avenue while protesting the federal budget “deal” that was leveraged, in part, by giving away some issues that D.C. citizens thought were theirs to decide.
35 years after we thought this city got some measure of Home Rule, we learned how truly little respect the rest of the nation has for the District of Columbia. The rights of the people of this city turned out to be simply a chip to play with in the federal budget negotiations. President Obama spent that chip to secure John Boehner’s acquiescence to the budget deal.
Some people say that securing the federal budget was a far bigger benefit to D.C. than the issues that Obama conceded. What a cynical view! Actually, the issues of whether abortion may be publicly funded, and whether children may receive public support to attend private school, are both critically important issues not just in D.C. but to the entire nation — and many people of conscience who are both pro-life and in favor of school vouchers can also be deeply angry that those issues were used cynically and in a way that undermines genuine democracy for the District of Columbia.
None of these issues should ever have been a bargaining chip in forcing Congress to meet its #1 obligation, which is to keep the federal government functioning. The legislation should never have included “social issues” as agenda items to force legislators and the chief executive to haggle like crones at the bazaar rather than crafting a professional public budget.
Ironically, last week also marked the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War — a moment that seems to be strange cause for celebration in states south of here, but that gets more tepid notice elsewhere. Echoes of that terrible conflict sound through contemporary society from time to time. The continuing disenfranchisement of the citizens of the nation’s capital is a loud, discordant gong amid the reverberations.
The dismissal of D.C.’s citizens as unable to determine their own affairs — unlike the citizens of any other city or state in the nation — is a patronizing vestige of the worst part of our nation’s history, the part that treated African Americans as less than full citizens. Sure, Constitutional scholars will say that the problem is not race at all, but rather, the language of the Constitution. In fact, that problem was partially solved by the 1973 Home Rule Act through which Congress ceded power to the local elected Mayor and Council. While the law remains seriously flawed (D.C. still has no vote anywhere in Congress, a fact of which I am painfully reminded each time a piece of legislation affecting higher education is before that august body), in fact, the most recent incident is not about the law itself but about the cynical manipulation of the basic local right of self-determination in order to serve larger political ends. They wouldn’t dare do this to the citizens of New York or L.A., but D.C.’s population is repeatedly treated with disdain by members of Congress who seem to believe the old saw (the ‘four too’s’) about D.C., namely, that it is “too urban, too liberal, too Democratic, too Black.’ Will D.C.’s changing demographics have an impact on the Congressional view of the city? Too early to tell, of course, but stay tuned…
For now, the federal budget “deal” could have and should have been done without abusing the right of the District of Columbia to govern its own affairs.
D.C. truly remains our nation’s last colony.