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Washington, DC's Mayor Is Trolling the Hell Out of Congress

Mayor Muriel Bowser has declared that DC will vote for statehood this fall and that she won't wait for Congress to approve its budget for the first time in the city's history.

by Sarah Mimms
Apr 15 2016, 6:55pm

Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA

It's no secret that many in the District of Columbia are unhappy with Congress' control of its budget and resent its lack of federal representation, leaving residents of the nation's capital feeling as though they are effectively second-class citizens in the United States. DC license plates carry the slogan "taxation without representation," after all. But frustration over this has gotten to the point that DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has taken it upon herself to troll Congress on the issue as much as possible this week.

Bowser announced on Friday that the city would vote this November to declare its independence and establish itself as the country's 51st state, which would give DC a vote in both chambers of Congress.

"I propose we take another bold step toward democracy in the District of Columbia," Bowser said. "It's going to require that we send a bold message to the Congress and the rest of the country, that we demand not only a vote in the House of Representatives. We demand two senators — the full rights of citizenship in this great nation."

Bower delivered her remarks at a press conference where some Democratic members of Congress had assembled for Emancipation Day, the only government holiday that is celebrated solely in DC and not by the federal government. Emancipation Day is a celebration of the DC Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, which ended slavery in the district, freeing 3,100 slaves. But it has also become a day of advocacy for democracy in the District of Columbia and statehood.

Bowser declared that this year's theme would be "Championing Full Democracy."

Just a day before she announced the statehood vote, Bowser took another step to distance the district from Congress. The mayor and other DC politicians declared that they wouldn't ask Congress for approval of this year's budget for the first time in the capital's history.

Because it is not a state, Congress must approve the city's budget each year before it can implement new programs and spending, and it frequently uses the opportunity to strike down the city's laws. After DC voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of legalizing marijuana in the city, for example, Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, used the budget process to prevent the district from selling or taxing weed. As a result, it is now legal to possess marijuana in DC, but not to buy or sell it. Harris was banned from several DC establishments after that, and he and other Republicans have threatened to jail Bowser for going forward with the legalization plan anyway.

This year, Bowser says that the city will start spending its tax revenue as district officials see fit until Congress stops them.

Related: Washington, DC's Mayor Has Defied GOP Threats and Legalized Pot

DC has just one representative in Congress, delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has a seat on the floor of the US House but cannot vote. The issue was famously mocked on the now-defunct Colbert Report, when Stephen Colbert ribbed Holmes Norton for not being from the United States of America and made fun of her inability to vote in Congress. "You're not a state. Just by definition, aren't you not in the United States?" Colbert said, in a hilariously tense exchange with Holmes Norton in his "Better Know a District" series.

Barbara Lett-Simmons, a former DC politician who once ran against Holmes Norton, famously abstained from casting her electoral college vote in George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore in 2000 to protest DC's "colonial status."

DC statehood advocates argue that the city's population of roughly 672,000 is actually larger than the population of two states: Vermont and Wyoming. DC officials say that trying to run a city in which Congress must approve their financial decisions is nearly impossible, particularly because whichever party is in power often uses DC to act on hot-button political issues that would otherwise be too difficult to address nationally.

Opponents of statehood have long argued that the question isn't one of fairness but of constitutionality. DC was established as the nation's capital to be controlled by Congress, this view holds, and it should remain that way.

"Washington is a wholly urban, one-industry town dependent on the federal government far in excess of any other state," the Cato Institute's Roger Pilon told the DCist in 2014. "Moreover, with Congress no longer having authority over New Columbia but dependent on it, New Columbia could exert influence on the federal government far in excess of any other state."

Related: Marijuana Is About to Be Legal — and Virtually Unregulated — in Washington, DC

But statehood advocates counter that DC is no longer just a government town. Approximately 60 percent of residents work in the private sector, and there are nearly as many federal workers (as a percentage of the population) in Alaska as there are in DC.

Also, like Americans in all 50 states, DC residents pay federal taxes.

One less commonly vocalized argument but a prevalent one, according to Bowser, is that DC is too heavily Democratic. Eighty-three percent of registered voters in DC are Democrats, according to the city's latest voter statistics. The city was a majority-black city for many decades, and the city's black community still retains a plurality of slightly less than half of the population, representing a large voting bloc that also heavily favors Democrats.

Bowser's fight with Congress is one of the most aggressive moves against the city's federal overlords in recent history. But it's unlikely that Congress will roll over. Although statehood bills have been introduced annually for the last two decades, Congress hasn't even brought one up for a vote since 1993.

Follow Sarah Mimms on Twitter: @SarahMMimms

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Barbara Lett-Simmons as Holmes Norton's predecessor, as a US Delegate from DC. Lett-Simmons ran against Holmes Norton for the congressional seat in 1990, but lost that race.