This week at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) shared a stage with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to pay tribute to a rare, bipartisan cause: a federal expansion of voting rights for returning citizens.
Sen. Paul, himself guilty of the federal crime of smoking pot, is a vocal critic of the War on Drugs and accompanying incarceration policies, which regularly put non-violent criminals behind bars and disproportionately affect black communities. Finishing one's time in jail does not unburden convicted felons of their governmental obligations -- they are taxed and able to serve in armed forces -- but it does deprive them of certain rights. In many states, including Sen. Paul's native Kentucky, citizens who have returned from prison are permanently stripped of their right to vote. Because of how many black Americans go to jail in their lifetimes, 1 in 13 black U.S. citizens is currently prohibited by law from ever voting again in the United States.
Noting a disconnect between (1) the concept of proportional and finite punishment, and (2) a lifelong ban on governmental participation, Rand Paul has developed what he believes to be a superior policy surrounding voting rights for convicted felons. Sen. Paul's project, the still-emerging Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act, would restore voting rights to people convicted of non-violent felonies who have served out their criminal sentences.
As a statehood activist in Washington, D.C., I commend Sen. Paul's stated commitment to rights for U.S. citizens who are unjustly denied the electoral benefits of citizenship. I question, however, Sen. Paul's silence on another pressing voting rights issue -- full democracy for U.S. citizens residing in the District of Columbia, via the New Columbia Admission Act, more commonly known as the D.C. statehood bill.
The Tea Party Senator Encounters a Modern American Colony
D.C. has a population greater than that of either Vermont or Wyoming. And like our more enfranchised counterparts, D.C. citizens pay local and federal taxes, fight and die in U.S. wars, serve on federal juries, and abide by federal and local law. District residents perform all other obligations expected of American citizens. Nevertheless, we are denied the fundamentally democratic, American right to vote.
The tax-paying residents of Washington, D.C. have no voting representation in Congress, which decides the federal laws that govern us. Worse still, members of Congress from other districts of the United States routinely interfere with D.C.'s decisions regarding local tax allocation and legislation. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich reflected on D.C.'s usefulness as a "laboratory" where conservatives might test ideas on Americans incapable of ballot box rebellions. Federal officials representing other states consistently and repeatedly impose their personal values on my city, nullify the outcomes of our local elections, and deny us democratic resource through which to influence the governing process.
Recent examples of Congressional interference in D.C. affairs include: the ongoing (and long-standing) prohibition barring D.C. local tax revenue from subsidizing abortions for low-income women; a pending bill (introduced by a Rep. Jim Jordan, A Republican from Ohio) to overturn the D.C. semi-automatic weapons ban and other city gun laws; and a decade-long ban on needle exchange programs intended to reduce the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the nation.
When Rand Paul was elected to the Senate, I and other D.C. statehood advocates were hopeful that a politician whose official bio declares him a "warrior against government overreach" would join us in our crusade against taxation without representation. Sen. Paul wrote the book on government bullies, after all. Surely Rand Paul, who ran his Senatorial campaign on the principles of limited government, would recognize the need to free D.C. from undemocratic rule.
Sen. Paul might have brought libertarianism to the U.S. Capitol, but his ideology does not extend past the literal edge of his employer's doors. Just outside the building where Sen. Paul represents the democratic interests of his Kentucky constituents. An majority-black, American city of more than 646,000 people is taxed by a government that denies it the right to vote. D.C. exists in an effective state of colonial rule.
Since he has been in federal office, Sen. Paul has not only ignored requests of statehood activists to support democracy in Washington, D.C., he has been one of the worst offenders in Congress in terms of interfering with our local affairs.
How Rand Paul Learned to Relax and Love Federal Overreach
In 2012, several months before his retirement, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) put forward a bill intended to be a compromise with voting rights nay-sayers. The proposed legislation didn't call for full citizenship rights in D.C., but only for budget autonomy. The District would still be denied a voice in the federal legislature, but we would newly be able to control our local tax expenditures free of Congressional oversight.
Though publicly an advocate of "local control," Sen. Paul willfully exerted his federal authority, vested in him by the citizens of Kentucky, to obstruct D.C.'s efforts to enact a city budget without approval from Congress -- a right afforded to U.S. citizens in every state in the nation. To undermine its intended effects, Sen. Paul added several amendments to the D.C. budget autonomy bill, making budgetary independence for D.C. contingent on the adoption of federally-mandated city laws, unique only to D.C., and decided upon by Sen. Paul himself -- all with no input or consent whatsoever from voters in the District of Columbia.
The libertarian Senator's proposed amendments to D.C. budget autonomy legislation included several policies weakening D.C.'s gun control laws, namely: requiring D.C to allow concealed handgun permits; forcing D.C to honor gun permits from other states; and -- in a city with only one licensed gun dealer -- creating a new, unasked-for governmental body to facilitate firearms sales in Washington, D.C. (The New York Magazine memorably referred to Sen. Paul as a "gun socialist"). Other Paul-authored markups to the bill included a permanent ban on D.C. using local tax dollars for abortion, and language intended to weaken the bargaining power of D.C.'s labor unions.
Rather than accept Sen. Paul's proposals to overturn D.C. voter consensus on gun control, reproductive rights, and labor policy, Sen. Lieberman pulled the budget autonomy bill from further Congressional review. And rightfully so. Limiting Congressional interference in our local budgetary affairs, a policy that could be overturned at will by Congress, was not worth having the democratic will of D.C.'s citizens unilaterally overruled by a Senator from Kentucky.
When the Washington Post asked Sen. Paul to describe the rationale behind his resistance to D.C. moving forward, even modestly, in its centuries-long quest for self-determination, the Senator's reply roughly amounted to: Because I'm more powerful than they are. Sen. Paul's exact words: "I think it's a good way to call attention to some issues that have national implications. We don't have [control] over the states, but we do for D.C."
To What Extent Local Control: D.C Statehood Tests Rand Paul
In 2013, determined to introduce stronger legislation this time, D.C's elected, non-voting delegate to Congress, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), introduced the New Columbia Admission Act. The bill, if enacted, would (1) shrink the Constitutionally-mandated federal district to include those areas of D.C. whose primary purpose is conducting federal business on behalf of voters from other parts of the country, and (2) introduce the remaining land in the District, along with its inhabitants, into the nation as the 51st state -- New Columbia.
The New Columbia Admission Act is Constitutional, and would restore consent of the governed to hundreds of thousands of tax-paying American citizens who have been deprived of their basic voting rights for more than 200 years. There is legal precedent for reducing the size of the federal district. Northern Virginia previously belonged to the District of Columbia, before the nation's capital ceded the land -- without any Constitutional amendments -- in 1847. The introduction of new states to the Union is also a legal process that does not require any amendment to the Constitution.
Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood is among a patchwork of grassroots, volunteer organizations in D.C. lobbying members of Congress to support the New Columbia Admission Act. Neighbor's United's director, Josh Burch, has met with Sen. Rand Paul's staff to encourage the aspiring party leader to become the first Republican co-sponsor of the New Columbia Admission Act.
Sen. Paul's remarks this week on voting rights expansions reminded me I hadn't heard much on the Kentucky Senator's D.C. statehood position in a while. So I inquired with Burch, who I know because I volunteer semi-regularly with Neighbors United. Could Burch elaborate, I wanted to know, on how his statehood-related outreach to Sen. Paul's office was going? The update Burch emailed me on Tuesday of this week:
"We met with Senator Paul's staff in the spring of 2013 and they seemed unaware, but receptive to the details of the statehood bill. The meeting was cordial and the lead staffer we met with asked lots of questions, but to this day we're unaware of Senator Paul's position on statehood. For someone who takes a clear stand on any and every issue before him, it'd be great to know where he stands on the disenfranchisement of 600,000 tax-paying American citizens."
In a 2013 speech at Howard University -- historically black and located in Washington, D.C. -- Sen. Paul argued that "the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights ... The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Frederick Douglass until the modern civil rights era, is in fact the history of the Republican Party."
Does Sen. Paul understand the irony of giving a speech defending the Republican historical record on voting rights to an audience of people whose capacity to self-govern he actively works to suppress?
Sen. Paul is right to call for expanded voting rights in the United States, and protection from oppressive federal forces. But, when politically advantageous, the Senator shamelessly inserts unwanted federal muscle into local affairs in a tax-paying, disenfranchised region of the United States that was never able to vote for him or any voting U.S. Senator.
Time will tell if Sen. Paul eventually comes to his small government senses and applies his libertarian enthusiasms to support statehood and full citizenship rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia. But as long as Sen. Paul continues to perpetuate a regime whereby Congress extracts taxes from hundreds of thousands of American citizens to whom it denies the right to vote, I would argue that Sen. Paul's preferred system of government for D.C. citizens is more akin to tyranny than to libertarianism.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to the budget autonomy bill as introduced in April of 2012, several months, rather than several weeks, before Joe Lieberman retired from the Senate.
Follow Joan Shipps on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moremicrophones