Democracy in D.C.

Dear Jamie,

       Well, if we can’t fight about the virtues and vices of the Control Board, let’s fight about something else. How about taxes?
       You’re absolutely right about the District’s structural fiscal crisis. My favorite gloomy statistic: In 1990, 300,000 working Washingtonians supported 300,000 nonworking Washingtonians. Today, thanks to the middle-class exodus, 240,000 working Washingtonians support 300,000 nonworking Washingtonians. This is obviously untenable. Middle-class people don’t want to live here (high crime, lousy schools, etc.), and businesses don’t want to locate here.
       I don’t know what to do about this (well, I have a few ideas–more later), but I do know what not to do: Tax commuters, tax nonprofits, and force cops and firefighters to live in town. Jamie, these are tired, tired ideas, and I’m surprised you resort to them. You say that “no city in the country–no matter how well managed–could support itself” under such congressional restrictions. I disagree. The District has never had a revenue shortage. Even today, it doesn’t have a revenue shortage. The city is, by any measure, the most taxed jurisdiction in the nation. It raises far more revenue per capita than any other city, even when you discount its extra state functions. D.C. is broke because it spends way too much way too unwisely–not because it has too little cash. The city government is addicted to taxes, yet you propose giving it another fix. It’s frustrating that Congress restricts the city’s power to tax, but that doesn’t mean such taxes are sensible. I would argue, in fact, that the very last thing D.C. needs is to levy commuters and businesses. Extra taxes will delay the necessary cutbacks in the city government. More important, extra taxes are a sure-fire way for D.C. to lose even more jobs and businesses. What will happen when D.C. starts billing commuters and nonprofits? Jobs will melt away to Maryland and northern Virginia.
       So what do I suggest? Congress and the Control Board should do everything in their power to lure businesses and working people like you back to the city. The only way to save D.C. will be to gentrify the hell out of it: Congress and the board should give massive tax breaks to new homebuyers, roll back or eliminate the federal income tax (a solution pushed by Jack Kemp and Eleanor Holmes Norton), slash corporate taxes, and shift money from social welfare services to cops, garbage collection, road repair. (Why should Congress give the District these special breaks, but not help Detroit? Because it’s the Nation’s Capital, that’s why.) These sweeteners would punish the poor–rents would rise and government services to the needy would deteriorate. But D.C. won’t survive without middle-class families, and the only way to lure middle-class families to the District is to bribe them. (There’s also a case to be made that encouraging poor Washingtonians to leave D.C. is not evil. Almost anywhere that they move will be more hospitable than Washington. What place has worse schools? Or higher crime? Or fewer jobs? But that’s a discussion for another day.)
       I also am leery of your (eloquent) plea for democracy. You ask me to join you in “denouncing the current lack of voting representation in Congress as unconstitutional, an affront to one-person-one-vote.” Sure. I join you. Of course it would be excellent and just if D.C. had a vote in Congress. But the absence of such a vote has nothing to do with the District’s failures. Dwelling on it is a distraction. Would D.C. have avoided catastrophe if Walter Fauntroy and Eleanor Holmes Norton had cast votes in Congress? I doubt it.