And now, the Commuter Tax! (again)

A consequence of DC’s unique status as the federal district is our inability to raise taxes ourselves without Congressional approval.

A 2003 Government Accountability Office study found that DC loses between $470 million to $1.1 billion annually in potential tax revenue because of the federal government’s presence in DC. Not only is the city unable to collect property taxes from federal buildings and embassies, some estimates say that only 28% of the federal employees whose offices are located within the District actually live in the city, depriving government coffers of much-needed tax revenue.

DC leaders have long argued that a commuter tax could help make up lost revenue. Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee that has legislative jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, said recently that after the election Congress should “start to think about how…how to deal with the only place that doesn’t have the ability to tax people who earn their income in that place.” Continue reading

Prologue

You may be surprised to know that there’s more to these United States than the 50 multi-colored shapes you’d find on a classroom wall map. Uncle Sam, always careful to disavow any interest in seeking empire, nevertheless claims ownership of dozens of islands, atolls, reefs, and rocks that dot the Caribbean and Pacific, as well as a federal district wedged between Maryland and Virginia. We, the 4.4 million Americans who inhabit these non-States, lack full representation in the US Congress.

Growing up in Indiana, I never considered what it meant to have actual representation in Congress. I took it for granted. Spotting my Senator sleeping during the State of the Union was always a thrill. I didn’t consider that people in other parts of the country would never know the joy or embarrassment of seeing one’s Senator threaten a cable news anchor to a duel or be embarrassed for marriage infidelity or some intern scandal.

Even when I moved to the DC, I didn’t give the matter much thought. The “Taxation Without Representation” license plate that I slapped on the front of my Volkswagen seemed like a gimmick. I saw it more as a conversation starter on return trips to Indiana than a city’s cry for political rights.

But then the 112th Congress arrived in town. With the new House Republican majority came rule changes. The media focused on the important ones, like the reintroduction of Styrofoam plates to the House cafeteria. Mostly ignored was the rescinding of a rule that had given non-States—DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands—a vote on House committees.

Weeks later Congress found itself unable to pass a federal spending bill. As a federal employee, Congressional dithering meant the possibility of an unpaid vacation. But, as a resident of DC—the only city whose budget requires Congressional and Presidential approval—a federal shutdown also meant a suspension of city services, from trash collection to pothole repair. DC’s 600,000 residents became hostages to Republic-shattering battles such as devoting .0001% of the federal budget to public broadcasting.

All of this coincided with a trip my girlfriend and I took to the Virgin Islands. Rather than devote our first day there to the beach, I dragged my girlfriend to the territory’s legislature—a former Danish military barracks—for a civics lesson. There we swapped stories with a local about life outside the bounds of statehood.

Eventually, Congress passed a spending bill, and trash collection continued in DC. Over the ensuring months, as Congress explored ways to drive its approval rating ever downward, 4.4 million Americans remained without a vote in the body that has a great deal of power over our communities.

Maybe our plight is due to the fact that the rest of the country seems wholly ignorant to our existence. Though small in size and number, we do have interesting stories to tell. This blog will shed some light on life in the non-States, the small slice of America that the rest of the country has forgotten about.