Does Washington Know Best?

09/21/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011
  • Patrick Mara Ward 1 Representative, D.C. State Board of Education

By law, every single individual legally residing in our nation's capital is deprived of full participation in the great American tradition of democracy. There's no excuse for it.

Actually, there is. In fact, there are two excuses, and it's high time to put a stop to both of them.

There's a long history behind District of Columbia residents not being expressly given the right of self-government. But, incumbent elected leaders of Congress and, paradoxically, of the District itself are perpetuating this fundamental violation of the very principles on which our great country was founded.

Unfortunately, for 600,000 Americans living in D.C., our local politicians have shown an addiction to supplying Congress with an easy excuse to continue its role as overlord: never-ending ethical scandals.

Every law passing the 13-member D.C. Council and signed by the mayor is subject to congressional veto. We're the capital of the free world. Yet, unlike every single local jurisdiction in America, decisions made by our local elected officials can be reversed by the very federal legislators we had no voice in electing.

Even worse, legislators elected by citizens outside the District of Columbia can impose on us any new law they wish. I guess it's what's called, "Washington knows best."

Instead of blaming Congress for using the excuse that D.C.'s local leaders aren't ready to govern on their own, I have another idea: take away Congress' automatic ammunition.

Cleaning up D.C. politics by locally enacting ethics reforms with real teeth, and by electing leaders who are guided by true ethical compasses, will result in less costly and more responsive government, inspire our residents to believe that their civic involvement actually has value, and remove from Congress the convenient excuse that our own politicians gifted it with.

There is no downside for Washingtonians to cleaning up our local government act. Except for the six, seven or eight (I've lost count) District politicians mired in scandal -- in just the past year alone.

I don't blame District residents for not being more involved locally. What do you expect when you tell 600,000 people that they can pay attention to reams of slogan-filled campaign literature and listen to unsolicited pre-election robo-calls, but that federal legislators whom they had no voice in electing will decide how locally raised taxpayer money will be spent? To add insult to injury, D.C. residents don't have the right (yet all other Americans do) to elect anyone to Congress who can represent them.

Give the residents of the District of Columbia a real voice in the decisions made by government that affect their daily lives and you'll see them recognize that there's a return on their investment of time and effort. I guarantee you will significantly reduce the incidence of running into people who say, "I'm not registered to vote here; I don't want to lose my voice."

At the same time, we'll reduce our high scandal-to-government-official ratio. Only in local D.C. politics do journalists say, "So many scandals. Only one news cycle in a day."

Which brings us back to the excuse used by Congress -- under Democratic as well as Republican control -- to not act. The ethical lapses by our local elected and appointed officials do not justify our diminished stature as U.S. citizens, but they do help perpetuate it. As Washingtonians, we pay the same amount in federal taxes as everyone else, and we send in even greater proportion our sons and daughters to risk their lives fighting for our precious freedom.

So, I have two asks:

1. To the President and Congress, I ask that national leaders come together with realistic solutions to resolve this un-American wrong. President Obama, House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Reid should consider establishing a bipartisan commission of respected citizens to highlight the current roadblocks to our autonomy and to empirically evaluate different options to remove them. What are the costs and the political viability of each potential solution? Retrocession, voting rights, a constitutional amendment, modifying federal taxation and statehood are among the paths to the District of Columbia's road to democracy.

The framers did not envision 600,000 people permanently living in our nation's capital. Many of us are members of families who lived here for generations. We are American citizens with the full responsibility given to all other Americans, but with that same responsibility ought to come the same rights. No longer can we afford to tolerate both political parties holding D.C. hostage to their own partisan interests. We must constructively challenge both parties to do what is right -- and to make it politically costly for them if they don't.

Living in a democratic republic is all about electing local officials to make decisions affecting our lives. Period.

2. To my fellow Washingtonians: I ask that we do a much better job of holding our local elected officials accountable. Until we get our local political house in order, Congress will retain the convenient excuse our own leaders hand them to not relinquish power -- whether it's budget and legislative autonomy, voting rights or statehood. Neither President Obama, the Republican House, nor the Democratic Senate recognizes advocates of D.C. democracy as politically potent because of one word: scandal. The fact of the matter is: we Washingtonians continue to elect these people. Self-serving, malicious actions by today's councilmembers and our local history with scandal remain one of the biggest obstacles to any type of autonomy for the District of Columbia.

Of course Congress is using that as an excuse. So of course, it makes sense for us to deprive them of the opportunity to hide behind it. To achieve that, we must demand that our elected D.C. councilmembers stop humming along as usual and instead demonstrate leadership as the navigators of ethics reform.

It's a win-win proposition: We cleanse our own ethical mess and we get leaner, more responsive government, and we remove the ammo our own elected representatives consistently hand Congress.