Battles Worth Losing
D.C.’s voting rights crusade shows it’s okay to pick a fight you can’t win
Someone once told me the District of Columbia was “full of government graspers and rent-seekers.” Well, maybe a few. But it’s also full of everyday U.S. citizens just like the rest of us, except for one thing: their voting rights.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s call on Friday for a capital city-wide referendum to make the District the 51st state in the union adds a new chapter to an old story. The arguments for D.C. statehood are tried (or tired) and true—yet in the past few decades, little has changed.
Certainly, little has changed in the three years since I last wrote about D.C. voting rights. My freshman fervor, however, has lapsed into senior cynicism. Back then, the District denizen in me would probably have jumped for joy at the prospect of finally clinching full citizenship. But when I heard about Bowser’s call for change, it just seemed kind of cute. The thing is, statehood simply isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
It’s the right thing to do, of course. The Founding Fathers didn’t envision D.C.’s metropolization, but metropolize it has. District residents represent more than just the in-on-Monday, out-on-Friday (or, more accurately, in-on-Tuesday, out-on-Thursday) congressional cohort. And there are lots of them: To borrow one of those tried and true advocacy arguments, D.C. beats out Wyoming in population. Denying more than 600,000 people congressional representation would be backwards anywhere. It’s even more striking in a country that got its start because people didn’t like being taxed without having a say in who legislated those taxes.
A yes-vote for statehood in November would be a symbol, not a statute: a democratic request for more democracy, but only a request all the same. Bowser hopes to use D.C.’s territorial status to mimic a model Tennessee pioneered in the late 1700s, the Washington Post’s Aaron C. Davis reported Friday. If D.C. residents approve an updated constitution that creates a republican government, a prickly process in itself, Congress could bypass the long and winding road to ratification by the existing states. The choice to decolonize D.C., then, could lie with Congress. November’s vote would be just another way to pressure those politicians.
A lot of decision making power about D.C. lies within Congress. Even now, though D.C. nominally gained home rule in 1973, laws that don’t suit Congress get squashed by budget riders. Bowser and the city council will put a $13 billion local spending plan into effect this year without Congress’s approval and appropriation, but that’s unprecedented—and it augurs a conflict to come.
That, maybe, is what makes Bowser’s boldness worthwhile, whether or not it seems naïve. We’re always told to pick our battles, and never to fight ones we can’t win. Bowser is bound to lose on statehood. But if she doesn’t try—and if D.C. doesn’t try with her—there’s no chance at all, and there’s also less likelihood that D.C. will wrest its budget from congressional control. Indeed, it’s hard to say that D.C. would have even the modicum of self-management it does today without the crusaders who in the seventies fought for statehood and got home rule and a non-voting representative instead.
This is a political lesson, but perhaps it’s a personal one too. Even without the gains that could come by going against the odds, it might not be so bad to stand up for the right thing every now and then, even if we’re going to lose. We might not reap the benefits we’re looking for—but we’ve got rent-seeking for that anyway.
Molly L. Roberts ’16, a former Crimson editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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