Issues of Representation for Our Nation's Capital

Over the last few weeks when I’ve told people at Wesleyan I’m from D.C., they ask me two questions: Am I really “into politics,” and have I partied with Malia Obama? The answers are “Yes,” and “I don’t want to say in The Argus because I’m scared of the Secret Service.” But these questions lead me to have to explain that there is so much more to D.C. than politics. D.C. was where hardcore punk was born. It has art museums and Go-go!

It’s not just D.C.’s culture that Wesleyan students seem not to know about. As informed as we are on issues ranging from proper gender pronouns to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not many people I’ve talked to seem to know that D.C. residents lack basic rights. Like the residents of the 50 states, D.C. residents pay federal taxes. In fact, we pay higher per capita taxes than any of the states. And like the residents of the 50 states, D.C. residents serve in the military and are subject to federal laws. Yet unlike the tax-paying, military-serving, and often law-abiding residents of the 50 states, D.C. residents have no voting representative in the Senate and have a delegate with limited voting rights in the House.

On top of this, or perhaps because of it, D.C.’s budget is subject to Congressional approval. This has allowed D.C. to serve as the political petri dish for Congressional fights in which it has no voice. Congress has forced D.C. to stop funding reproductive health services for women, prevented D.C. from legalizing marijuana, and obstructed other measures supported by the majority of residents.

But why should this matter to Wesleyan students? First of all, it’s an injustice, and a big one.  It’s not just that D.C.’s lack of representation silences over 650,000 voices, but D.C.’s population has historically been majority African American, so it is marginalizing voices already far too silenced in our society.  It’s also not by any means an issue isolated from campus.  There are quite a few D.C. residents at Wesleyan who can’t take important values learned at Wesleyan and use that to go home, vote, and impact policy.  Given how politically inclined and socially active Wesleyan students are, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few people end up in D.C. after graduation, where despite living in the “heart of democracy in the world” they won’t be able to vote for someone to represent them in Congress. When I started here, I had to think seriously about whether to register to vote in my hometown or to register in Connecticut – whether I should participate in governance of my city or my country, since I couldn’t have both.

Wesleyan students also seem to care deeply about the affordability of a college education. Not just at Wesleyan, but around the country, college costs too much. Students living in any of the 50 states have the option to attend an in-state school where they pay considerably lower tuition than they would at an out-of-state or private school. D.C., however, does not have an in-state system; instead, D.C. students can get $10,000 off the out-of-state tuition at any public university. While this might seem like a great deal, the $10,000 rarely covers the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. At the University of Michigan, for example, the difference in tuition for in-state and out-of-state is around $30,000. Thus, in comparison to their peers across the country, students in D.C. don’t have an equal opportunity to education. What is more, DC TAG (DC Tuition Assistance Grant), which covers the $10,000 scholarship, is part of the federal budget, meaning that every year it has to be approved by Congress, in which D.C. has no voice.

It matters that students across the country know and care about disenfranchisement in D.C., because no matter how hard D.C. residents push or how loudly they protest, no one in Congress needs to listen to the voices of D.C. residents; nothing holds them accountable to us. If you live in a state, though, you have an elected representative, someone who needs your vote in order for them to keep their job. That gives you the power to to tell Congress to stop messing with D.C., to tell your Congressmen and -women that you believe that everyone deserves the right to have a say in how our country is governed.

We wouldn’t put up with it if the law kept people from voting because of their race, gender, or religion. Their zip code shouldn’t make a difference either.

Sternlieb is a member of the Class 0f 2019. 

  • John Oliver

    Thank you for covering this! Americans insult DC all of the time with no regard for its permanent residents, only focusing on its part time politicians.