Starting this weekend, the president’s ride will sport the same style license plates as the D.C.-registered cars stuck in traffic waiting for him to pass. After years of lobbying, Obama’s plates will claim “Taxation without Representation.”
The last time the president’s car had such plates was when Bill Clinton was commander-in-chief. After so many years, why make the change now?
It’s purportedly a matter of principle.
“President Obama has lived in the District now for four years, and has seen first-hand how patently unfair it is for working families in D.C. to work hard, raise children and pay taxes, without having a vote in Congress,” a White House spokesman comments. “Attaching these plates to the presidential vehicles demonstrates the president’s commitment to the principle of full representation for the people of the District of Columbia and his willingness to fight for voting rights, home rule, and budget autonomy for the District.”
The president is partly right. The status of the District is a matter of principle—the principle of federalism.
D.C. is a special place. It’s not simply another state: Iowa, Texas, or Hawaii. It’s a federal city.
The Founders designed the district to be outside of the control of any one state. Article 1 Section 8 Clause 17 gives Congress legislative power over the “District” that is “the Seat of the Government of the United States.”
In Federalist 43 James Madison, the father of our Constitution, explained that it was an “indispensable necessity” to make the District independent. The federal government exercises control over every state. To place the federal government within a state could put it in that state’s control. Such an arrangement would insult the federal government’s authority, potentially interrupt its proceedings, and foster ill will amongst the rest of the states.
This isn’t to say there’s no room for self-government. D.C. has a city council, a mayor, and local courts. Those of us who live here enjoy some 300 elected neighborhood commissioners. And let’s not forget that 535 members of Congress spend much of the year working in the District. President Obama has lived in the White House for years, but still is a resident of Illinois. When D.C. has a problem, it immediately gets the president’s and Congress’s attention. D.C. has a delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton (who regularly sends periodic mailings reminding district residents of her Hill accomplishments). Thanks to the 23rd Amendment, D.C. residents vote in presidential elections.
And there are other potential solutions compatible with D.C.’s constitutional status. Perhaps the residential areas of D.C. could be reincorporated into Maryland. Or district residents can seek representation by moving to Virginia or Maryland.
As it stands, D.C. is a federal city. A Capital city. Say, that would make a nice license plate.
— Julia Shaw is a research associate and program manager in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.