Thursday, January 6, 2011

No Taxation Without Representation – Except for Some

I’m sure that we all remember one of the great slogans that led up to events like the Boston Tea Party and eventually the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War: “No Taxation Without Representation”. I don’t know, but I suspect that if you polled Americans, quite a few would wrongly presume that principle is enshrined in the Constitution. I was reminded that, not only is this concept not in the Constitution, it is, in fact, a real problem in 21st Century America. And I was reminded of this by one of the very first acts of the new Republican-led House which, in adopting its new rules, made to sure to make the House of Representatives just a bit less democratic and take away a symbolic voice of millions of Americans.

First a bit of background. As I’m sure most readers know, the District of Columbia is not represented in Congress. Citizens who reside in Washington, D.C. can vote in Presidential elections and the District of Columbia does have electoral votes, but it does not have Congressional representation because it is not a state. Thus, the approximately 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C. — who pay income taxes and Social Security taxes and all other federal taxes just like the rest of us — have no vote in Congress.

I forgot, however, that the same can be said about Puerto Rico (population 3,725,000). Puerto Ricans are United States citizens. They don’t pay Federal income tax (except in certain cases), but they do pay into Social Security and Medicare and other Federal programs (even though they are not eligible for all of the benefits). Puerto Ricans can vote in Presidential primaries but they have no votes in the Electoral College and no vote in Congress. The United States has several other territories that are treated much like Puerto Rico: Guam (pop. 178,000), Northern Mariana Islands (pop. 86,000), the United States Virgin Islands (pop. 108,000), and American Samoa (65,000).

If we were to rank states based on population, Guam, Northern Marianas Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa are all much smaller than any state. But the population of Washington, D.C. is larger than Wyoming and almost as large as Vermont. And Puerto Rico would rank 29th in size (immediately ahead of Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, and Arkansas) and more than three times larger than eight states.

Thus, approximately 4,762,000 Americans — a number roughly equal to the population of Alabama — has no representation in Congress.

I understand that this is a function of the language of the Constitution which speaks to states and not territories. Absent either an amendment to the Constitution or the inclusion of the territories as states, not much can be done. Probably.

However, last year a deal was nearly worked out in Congress that would have increased the size of the House of Representatives (no, the Constitution does not mandate 435 members) by 2. Utah would, on the basis of its population, have been given one of those seats, and the District of Columbia would have received the other. However, the deal fell through when the grant of a voting seat to the District of Columbia was linked to a repeal of Washington, D.C.’s handgun laws.

Each of the territories does send a non-voting member to Congress. They are allowed to serve on committees (and gain seniority just like voting members). And, in recent Democratic-controlled Congresses the delegates from these territories have been given the right to vote as a part of the “Committee of the Whole” on amendments and other procedural matters in the House. They simply could not vote on final adoption a bill (and their votes didn’t count in the Committee of the Whole if those votes alone would have changed the result).

But the new Republican-led Congress, as one of the first things that it did, prohibited the territorial delegates from voting as a part of the Committee of the Whole. Ah, yes, power to the people.

I don’t mean this to be a drawn out discussion of whether Guam and Puerto Rico should become states. That is a very complex issue. Nor do I mean to engage in a Constitutional discussion of the role of Washington, D.C. and the rights of its citizens. Rather this unfortunately lengthy post is meant to highlight two things: (1) the voting rights of 4,762,000 is an issue worth addressing (at least slaves counted as 3/5 of a person…) and (2) the new Republican-led Congress — despite pledges of “listening to the will of the American people” and so forth — wasted no time in taking away what was largely a symbolic representational voting right for American citizens. I don’t suppose that had anything to do with the fact that all but one of those territorial delegates is a Democrat (and the other is an independent)?

It’s just one of those things that makes me say, “why” and “why now”? Allowing the territorial delegates to vote on amendments only and only when those votes don’t change an outcome seems harmless and, at the same time, at least provides those millions of American citizens with a voice in Congress. But, as one of their very first acts, the Republicans have elected to stifle that voice.

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