This presidential election year brings more of the usual chatter about D.C. rights, and Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has added a new twist by raising the specter of a D.C. commuter tax.
Let’s not tempt the devil or ignore the details.
Congress holds the “ultimate legislative authority over the nation’s capital” by virtue of the U.S. Constitution, as the D.C. Home Rule Act of 1973 states, and that declaration was embedded deliberately.
Besides, changing the charter to permit a commuter tax — a new tax — would stir up a hornet’s nest that, for the most part, has been dormant since the congressionally created D.C. control board moved to the back burner in 2001.
Most Americans do not know that D.C. acts like a state, doing things like collecting taxes and running a school system. Heck, D.C. even goes along with the same-sex marriage movement and raises a ruckus when Congress tries to clamp down on abortion spending.
But Congress is just doing its job, as spelled out in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power “to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District.”
So, if Congress wants to institute in a commuter tax on behalf of the District of Columbia, it can exercise its constitutional prerogative.
But it should not do so without consulting the residents and elected representatives of the various states.
Mr. Issa’s commuter-tax comment came during a recent hearing on height restrictions in the city, which are also spelled out in the home-rule charter.
“[H]ow we are going to deal with the only place that doesn’t have the ability to tax people who earn their income in that place?” is how Mr. Issa, who is up for re-election, put it.
Well, digest how a Virginia Democrat characterized the home-rule question during a debate in the House in 1965, eight years before Congress approved and then-President Nixon signed legislation that gave the District limited self-governance.
“Whose hometown is this anyway?” asked Howard Smith, a conservative who supported both segregation and women’s rights. “The casual residents who live here and may be gone tomorrow, or does it belong to the people of the United States?”
The answer is an easy one: This “hometown” belongs to the people of the United States, including the estimated 617,996 people who currently reside here.
No imminent action on Mr. Issa’s query appears on the horizon. That’s a good thing, because serious conversations about the nation’s capital should reach beyond the borders of the District and every red-blooded citizen of this nation has a right to call this home.
Moreover, rewriting such historical documents as the D.C. Home Rule Act shouldn’t be done at the whims of any given moment.
After all, several states — including some of this year’s presidential battleground states, such as Virginia and Florida — have yet to sign onto the 23rd Amendment that granted D.C. voters the right to cast ballots in presidential elections. And Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Mississippi remain mum as well.
Know too, the District is a federal district in transition and of transients, established as the seat of our federal government, the “hometown” of, by and for the American people.
Congress should tread very carefully.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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