License plate politics

by Micah on August 5, 2003

I was in Washington, DC, over the weekend and noticed this license plate for the first time. Apparently, it came out a couple years ago and is now the “default”: (though optional) license plate for the District.


The story is that Clinton had this plate put on the presidential limousine just as he was leaving office, and Bush (who got only “9%”: of the vote in DC) had it promptly removed.

DC residents–almost 600,000 of them–pay federal taxes but have no representation in Congress. Conservatives don’t like the idea of granting DC residents representation. The main reason is that DC, which has a very large African American community, would elect liberal representatives. There are a number of possible “solutions”: to the problem. Jonah Goldberg argues for the elimination of the federal tax in DC–he misleadingly calls it “Representation without Taxation”: (Even if there’s no taxation, where’s the representation?) Alternatively, there’s been some “recent discussion”: about adding a voting seat for Washington, which would no doubt go to the Democrats, in exchange for an additional seat in Utah, which would go Republican. Not ideal, but certainly better than the status quo.

Tangentially, the idea of using license plates to make political statements has been finding its way into American courts. There were some “stories”: about this back in February focusing on attempts by pro-lifers in some southern states to put “Choose Life” on their plates. Pro-choice advocates couldn’t decide whether to lobby for “Choose Choice” plates or to file suit to prevent the use of license plates for political purposes. States seem just as confused. Are they endorsing the messages put on license plates or simply providing a forum for political speech? Dahlia Lithwick has a nice piece in Slate discussing the first amendment issues raised by these questions. Read it “here”:



Kenneth G. Cavness 08.05.03 at 8:07 pm

I have a real — real — problem with keeping D.C. out as a state just because the Republicans might lose a seat. I realize that all things are politics, but holy cow, that’s cynical. The people of D.C., and Democrats, should not have to give an “equal seat” to Utah!

Wow, the more I think about this, the more it actually angers me. I’m not sure how I can articulate the anger, either. I need to think about this.


aelph 08.05.03 at 8:41 pm

Goldberg: “Every few days, there’s some item in the local news about a protest, a speech, a demonstration, a baby banging a spoon on his highchair, whatever, that this teeny-tiny city of 570,000 residents doesn’t have two senators, just like 35 million Californians.”

I wonder what his opinion is on revoking Wyoming’s statehood, concidering it has a population of only 499,000.


pathos 08.05.03 at 8:50 pm

Some Conservatives argue that Washingtonians should be kept out of Congress because they’d vote Democratic, but that’s hardly the majority viewpoint.

Washington has been denied statehood by every administration ever, Federalist, Whig, Democrat, whatever.

In fact, citizens of D.C. only got the right to vote for President in the early 1970s, after even the 18 year olds.

It may or may not be a good idea to make Washington a state (same for Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S.V.I. and other non-state entities), but the fact that some Conservative oppose it on political grounds hardly makes that the primary motivation.

Meanwhile, Jonah’s article on the “tiny 600K” in Washington disengenoulsy ignores that D.C., were it to become a state, would not be the smallest. Republican Wyoming has 493K. Republican Alaska’s population is also comparable.


imrpink 08.05.03 at 9:00 pm

We delt with that same issue here in Boston a few years ago.


James Joyner 08.05.03 at 10:09 pm

imrpink: Actually, no. DC got Electoral College representation with the 23rd Amendment (1961). Suffrage at 18 was the 26th Amendment (1971).

pathos: Revoking statehood isn’t going to happen, obviously. But we wouldn’t GRANT Wyoming statehood right now, either. DC statehood doesn’t make sense for a variety of reasons. The voting/taxation problem–which is indeed a big one–could be solved in other ways. See my post here for more.


Jason McCullough 08.05.03 at 10:12 pm

“But we wouldn’t GRANT Wyoming statehood right now, either.”

My ass we wouldn’t; a new state that’s controlled by ranching, oil, and gas interests? That’s extremely conservative? It’d be a territory for ten minutes.


clew 08.05.03 at 10:45 pm

Could DC be annexed to another state? Say, Wyoming?


harry 08.05.03 at 10:59 pm

Could the Federal government raise funds by selling DC off to the highest-bidding other government, which would get the right to tax DCers in perpetuity, in return for an upfront cash sum, plus granting voting rights to DC residents?
It would address the deficit(short term), and get rid of inconvenient liberal voters, who could be pruchased by, perhaps, a country with a left-leaning government wanting to entrench its power. Neither Cuba nor Brazil have the money. But Germany? Britain’s Labour Party might be needing votes sometime.


pathos 08.05.03 at 11:22 pm


You are right. D.C. got electoral college votes first.

I was thinking about self-rule, I think. I believe D.C. did not get a mayor until around 1970 — it was completely under federal control before then.


fastback 08.06.03 at 1:38 am

As a resident of DC, I would prefer all but the core downtown federal triangle area be given back to Maryland. All portions of the District that were donated by Virginia (the area south of the Potomac) have already been given back to Virginia. This would give Maryland another seat in the House and would give representation to the vast majority of current DC residents since few live in the core federal areas.


Robert Schwartz 08.06.03 at 3:17 am

James Joyner, on his blog, and Fastback have the only solution for most of the districts residents that might be palatable to the hinterlands.

Pathos is right that this is not new. No matter what the alignment of the parties is at any time, giving the District, two Senators and a congressman will be tantamont to granting representation to the permanent government. Those representatives will always lobby for higher pay and softer conditions for government employees.

The residents of the District will always be able to make their views known to the Federal Government. Formal representation would be otiose.


Katherine 08.06.03 at 7:49 am

“The residents of the District will always be able to make their views known to the Federal Government. Formal representation would be otiose.”

I don’t know what otiose means, but I think I can guess from the context.

In this information age we can all make our views known to the Federal Government. Does that mean formal representation is superfluous?

D.C. is by and large a minority, economically depressed city. Professional government employees are not the dominant group in the electorate, and I’m sure plenty–if not most–of them live in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

If they want statehood, they should get it. If Goldberg wants to alter Congressional representation to reflect population I’m all ears, but unfortunately I’m pretty sure the Senate is unamendable.

The small states really got the better end of the deal. Grossly over-represented in the Senate and the Constitutional amendment process; somewhat overrepresented in the electoral college. And of course the three biggest states don’t tend to be close in a presidential election (unless the election’s not close), so they’re more or less ignored then too. That leaves the House–where there are very few competitive elections period.


James Joyner 08.06.03 at 3:39 pm


You’re right that the vast majority of federal workers live outside the District.

While the sovereign nature of the States (which, indeed, is inherent in the word “state”) was a fact of life under the Articles of Confederation and thus presumed at the Constitutional Convention, I don’t think we’d have come up with the Great Compromise if the huge population disparities that now exist existed back then. I’ve lived mainly in small states, but think it’s now rather silly for states with populations under a million to have the same say in the Senate as California. (Although, from a policy outcome standpoint, this doubly advantages me.)

But DC is a tiny, tiny city. Even compared to Rhode Island–which we also likely wouldn’t make a state if we were doing it from scratch now. The problem is representation–which I agree is something all citizens deserve–not statehood. Giving it statehood is just a bad idea and exacerbates an already skewed system.


Daragh McDowell 08.06.03 at 4:00 pm

This whole argument seems to show a critical lack of imagination. Who says DC needs to be a State? Indeed as the seat of the Federal government in one of the loosest Federations on earth, it would probably be a bad thing to have the Federal government wielding power within the confines of another ‘sovereign’ State of the Union.
The problem then is how do we square DC’s lack of representation with it being taxed? All it needs is a Congressman, and perhaps the rules could be changed so that DC has one Senator rather than the usual two, or SOMETHING. Its not a matter of simply making DC a state, or giving it back to Maryland except for Capitol Hill and the White House.


Christian Waugh 08.06.03 at 5:30 pm

Yeah but it seems like neither party has really bothered with DC. I remember reading some time ago that Senator Prescott Bush ardently favored making it a state, something that has fallen by the wayside, to be sure…

…but did we ever anything out of Clinton about it? Putting the plate on his last days in office is yet another pathetic hint at the possibility of greatness — that is, potential squandered.

Are there Constitutional issues with this though? Hasn’t it been meant to just be a “district?” What’s DF in Mexico?


eric 08.06.03 at 6:02 pm

The District was originally created becuase the Federal government didn’t *want* the capital to be in a particular state. That’s probably still a good idea, but not necessary, so just cut those neighborhoods back to Maryland or VA or whatever, or, abolish the district entirely and make it part of Maryland again.


Aaron 08.06.03 at 6:43 pm

I wonder how many of these people with an opinion on DC’s future (and its license plates) actually live in the District of Columbia?


Roger Sweeny 08.06.03 at 7:05 pm

Christian Waugh,

D.F. in Mexico means Districto Federal, Federal District. Like Washington, D.C., it is not part of any state.

My preferred solution is to combine the residential parts of DC with Virginia and Maryland to form one superstate. No more worrying about where in the Potomac the border is. And I still have a 49 star flag.


Ratherworried 08.06.03 at 7:19 pm

Surely D.C. residents deserve some form of representation. The current lack of representation was likely the framers’ desire to prevent the new Federal Government from becoming hostage to any particular State government.

Maybe I’m cynical but…Is it an issue now only because control of Congress is at stake? I’m certain that over the 40 years that Congress was dominated by the Democratic party the issue of representation for D.C. residents was not a priority for either party. Now with control of Congress at stake we have an issue that must be addressed?

As to some posters statements regarding Alaska, Wyoming and Rhodes Island not qualified to be states…some of you need to get out more. Wyoming has some good sized cities (Casper, Cheyenne, hell…Laramie) and a great deal of economic output (Agriculture, natural resources); Alaska is a huge state with large cities and a diverse and vibrant population, oh yes, and they are filthy rich (oil); Rhodes Island is typical of New England, it has a gorgeous coast line with large cities, old industries and a unique culture (love the Quahogs!).

Lets compare those states to D.C. The District of Columbia is a City that has been run for years by more or less corrupt Democrats and nearly fiscally destroyed. D.C.’s problems have nothing to do with lack of representation. Getting D.C. government representation would mimic the parable of providing clothes to the hungry. D.C. does not need representation, it needs fiscal restraint and the clean up of a historically corrupt City government. D.C. has one of the highest crime rates in the country, very high taxes but terrible schools and lousy government services. With drug and crime problems, failing schools and a huge percent of the population on various forms of government assistance, Maryland and Virginia DO NOT WANT IT BACK.

If you could choose to live in either D.C. or one of those aforementioned states, you would only pick D.C. if you could commute from Virginia or Maryland.

That said, give them a couple of Representatives, it will not solve a single one of D.C.’s problems but it will eliminate the ability to blame these problems on someone besides themselves.


jw mason 08.06.03 at 7:43 pm

“No more worrying about where in the Potomac the border is.”

It’s at the Virginia shoreline. We won the river in the Civil War.

At least, that’s what I was told growing up in Maryland….


fastback 08.07.03 at 2:14 am

Maryland does claim the Potomac, but Virginia has taken this to court since Fairfax County has plans to build a pipeline to pump water from the river against Maryland’s wishes. A special master has been appointed by the Supreme Court to look into facts at hand. The case is styled Virginia v. Maryland.


fastback 08.07.03 at 3:17 am

Regarding the plates: Yes, it is true that Clinton had it placed on the presidential limosine and Bush removed it. Considering that the limos (as do all federal government vehicles) normally have federal government plates and not DC plates, legally they didn’t belong there. I don’t hold that against Bush, but he certainly made a point of removing them quickly. Clinton didn’t do much to help DC and his stunt was just another of the minor stink bombs he left his successor. Another interesting fact is the idea for the “Taxation Without Representation” plates started when a caller to a local drive-time radio talk show suggested it as a replacement for the previous “Celebrate and Discover” tourism inanity on the plates. Mayor Williams picked up on the idea and it was basically a done deal within a couple of days. Eleanor Holmes Norton the city’s “Representative” in the House said the plates would prompt visitors to ask us residents what it meant. I’ve only been asked once and the nonplussed tourist said that considering the inordinate number of BMWs and Mercedes she’d seen in DC, it didn’t prompt much sympathy. Although I said in a post above that I’d rather be returned to Maryland, I often think, nah, I just rather have my federal tax payments back.


PG 08.07.03 at 3:15 pm

Several alternatives to the current situation in D.C.

Pro-choicers should be supporting the “choose life” plates (with one caveat).


Jason McCullough 08.07.03 at 5:49 pm

“The District of Columbia is a City that has been run for years by more or less corrupt Democrats and nearly fiscally destroyed.”

Yes, this would *definitely* be worsened by the district’s residents having some sort of federal representation!


Nabakov 08.08.03 at 8:26 am

“The residents of the District will always be able to make their views known to the Federal Government. Formal representation would be otiose.”

But aren’t views without votes a bit like taxation without representation?

In Australia, the national capital, Canberra, was planted in the middle of a wilderness for political reasons like Washington DC.

But we now have the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) which has two Senate seats and two House of Representive seats in the Federal Parliament.

Admittedly they are even more of a parochial shower than normal but the entertainment value alone is worth it.

An aside. When coming up with names for what is now Canberra, one frontrunner was Myola – until an MP at the time publically pointed out it sounded like “the mating call of an Italian streetwalker”.


Bill Burns 08.08.03 at 4:11 pm

I would like to suggest an alternative argument for DC representation in the US Senate as a separate entity–it would effectively create a permanent black presence in the Senate, something rather sorely lacking.


Matt Weiner 08.09.03 at 1:14 am

ratherworried, by your criteria for statehood population doesn’t matter; poor quality of government does. Shouldn’t we be revoking Texas’s statehood right now?


Steven desJardins 08.09.03 at 1:36 am

If you could choose to live in either D.C. or one of those aforementioned states, you would only pick D.C. if you could commute from Virginia or Maryland.

Mr. worried (or can I call you “rather”?), I’m having trouble reconciling the emphatic statement above with the prosaic fact that I chose to live in D.C. instead of Maryland or Virginia, and so did many of my neighbors. It seems odd that there’s so much construction of high-priced condominiums, or that the market value of my condo has tripled in the last ten years, if there hasn’t been a sizeable influx of well-to-do professionals who ignore old stereotypes and move into a city that is, let’s face it, a whole lot more fun than any of the suburbs surrounding us.

I’m also finding some of the political assumptions floating around to be a little doubtful. I wouldn’t expect anyone who hasn’t lived here to know that David Catania, a white Republican, defeated Arrington Davis, a black Democrat, for an at-large City Council seat in a citywide election. But I would expect people to be slightly less confident that all three of our Congressmen would be black Democrats. It’s likely, I admit, at least until the city’s demographics shift a bit more, but far from certain, and it seems that anyone who knows he knows little about recent D.C. elections would hesitate to make bold pronouncements about the electorate’s predilections.


Robert Schwartz 08.10.03 at 3:48 am

“I don’t know what otiose means”

Try this

“In this information age we can all make our views known to the Federal Government. Does that mean formal representation is superfluous?”

You think e-mail, but the Founding Fathers and I were thing about mobs with pitchforks, stones and torches.

I and most of the other flyover people do not want the Federal Bureaucracy to have a rotten burough. If the residents of DC want representatives, the only hope that they have is to argue for deacssesion of the residential areas.


Steven desJardins 08.11.03 at 9:27 pm

We in D.C. wish you in the flyover country would get rid of your own damn rotten boroughs before speaking out smugly in favor of an ongoing, outrageous injustice. You can start with Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and the Dakotas–all of which have Senatorial representation far out of proportion to their population.

Comments on this entry are closed.