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Friday, Jan 28, 2022

‘Taxation without representation’: The fight for statehood and an end to the senate filibuster

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Pia Contreras</a></span>

Do you ever think about the history of your state’s license plate? This topic came up when I was talking to a friend who grew up thinking that all license plates in the U.S. included the words “Taxation Without Representation” as a reminder of our roots. But over time, she noticed that this was unique to her city. The deep irony is that the city proudly displaying these words is also the only city in the United States of America that is taxed, controlled, and trampled on by the federal government without representation in Congress: Washington, D.C. Now, after decades of hold-up caused by split-party conflict and baseless debate, it is finally time to grant the District of Columbia state status.  

The people of D.C. are taxed like all Americans — sometimes even more so —  and yet they have no voting representatives in Congress. They are also the only city in the United States to have its school and city budgets, as well as almost all parts of municipal function, controlled by Congress. Moreover, D.C. has a population of over 700,000 people — more than both Wyoming and Vermont (which are, indeed, states). As tax-paying citizens, D.C. residents deserve to have their voices represented in Congress and to take control of the day-to-day operations of their own city. 

The bill that has been introduced by D.C.’s delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.), would give the District of Columbia state status while also creating special federal territories encompassing the Capitol, the White House, Supreme Court, and other federal buildings as special federal zones. This should make any people who are concerned about federal jurisdictions calmer. 

Democrats have long advocated for D.C. statehood, and the latest election cycle has opened the door for its possibility. In a surprising upset in the Senate — with both Georgia seats won by Democrats — the party now holds legislative and executive control. But there is still one hurdle to clear: the Senate filibuster. The filibuster is a practice embedded in Senate rules that has opened the door to partisan gridlock, as a supermajority of 60 votes is necessary to end debate on any legislation. 

Biden and other Democrats seem very eager to reform the filibuster. Changing Senate Rule 22, which affirms the necessity of this supermajority, would be the easiest way to curtail it. However, with a continued two-thirds majority necessary to end debate, this seems unlikely. The more complex but also more feasible option is to establish a new Senate precedent. Any senator may do this by suggesting that a Senate rule is being broken, and if the presiding officer agrees, this would set a new precedent. Many Senate rules are Machiavellian in nature, making any such move difficult. But if Democrats formulate a plan to tackle this barrier, they will be free to pass long-wanted reforms. 

If Democrats are successful in ending the Senate filibuster and Rep. Norton’s bill passes in the houses, it will have a clear path to success in the Democrat-controlled Senate. With a Congress that is more open to statehood, it is crucial to end the filibuster and finally make the District of Columbia a full-fledged state. 

Bruno Coelho is a member of the class of 2024.