I used to think that adding the slogan “Taxation Without Representation” to District of Columbia license plates was tendentious and tacky. But after a decade of being unable to vote for a member of Congress, I have more sympathy for the district officials who came up with this admittedly gimmicky protest.
Their cri de car was amplified this week when it was announced that plates with the slogan would be affixed to the presidential limousine in President Obama’s second term. White House officials said Obama belatedly decided to use the plates because, after living in the city for four years, he 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.”
But if Obama really cares about representation for D.C. residents he would champion legislation to replace the district’s current nonvoting “delegate” with an actual member of the House of Representatives. Enactment of such legislation wasn’t a priority in his first term (he told the Washington Post in 2009 that “our legislative agenda's chock-full” with other matters.)
Even so, Congress came close in Obama’s first term to approving a bill that would have created a permanent house seat for the district, along with a temporary one for Republican-leaning Utah, the state that came closest to attaining an additional seat in the 2000 census. The proposal died after a measure was attached to it that would have relaxed gun laws in the district.
Legal scholars are divided over whether the Constitution allows Congress to grant D.C. a vote in the House. (There is no such division over giving the district representation in the Senate; that clearly would require a constitutional amendment.) If legislation were passed to give district residents a member of Congress of their own, it surely would be challenged in court.
But first things first: Obama should insist that Congress send him a D.C. voting rights bill. His signature on such legislation would be an infinitely more important victory for the district’s residents than a new license plate on the presidential limo.