WASHINGTON – Trying to elicit the same results the Boston Tea Party achieved for colonial residents 230 years ago, Washington’s only congressional representative, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, set fire to federal tax forms last month to declare "no taxation without representation" in the District of Columbia.
She was joined by 250 protesters in the bonfire, meant to draw attention to a bill she and fellow Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have introduced that would exempt district residents from paying federal taxes until they get voting representation on Capitol Hill.
"They don’t think you should have to pay taxes without having the representation ... in Congress," Norton told Fox News in a Friday interview.
The fight is not a new one. Since being elected to Congress in 1990, Norton has been advocating for changes that would allow the district to have at least two members of Congress who can vote along with each of the other 50 states' representatives. Such a move would be, in essence, giving D.C. statehood.
Now, Norton has seemingly found a wedge in which to push for that change — by dangling tax money in front of a revenue-hungry bureaucracy.
"What we want is a vote — not to be relieved of taxation," she said.
It remains to be seen whether Congress would prefer to exempt the district from paying federal taxes or give it full voting rights on Capitol Hill.
Republicans have been opposed to giving D.C. statehood since Norton started her campaign. In a symbolic gesture, President Bush removed the "No Taxation Without Representation" D.C. license plates from his official limo when he took office.
While giving D.C. — whose 570,000 residents are 60 percent black and heavily Democratic — a chance to elect members of Congress would surely result in a Democratic dynasty, conservatives say they oppose the idea of statehood because it is unconstitutional. A state that houses the federal government would be sure to breed corruption and the district was never meant to be residential, opponents say.
Some have even called for returning the residential part of the district to neighboring Maryland, which donated the land for the capital after its founding in 1791, when it was only a 10-mile square. That idea is not popular with residents and local leadership.
"I am a Republican. I know chances are we will elect Democrats to those positions, but who cares?" said D.C. Councilwoman Carol Schwartz. "Democracy brings what democracy brings."
Democracy has been good for Norton. In 2000, the six-term delegate won with 90 percent of the vote. So far, she has no Republican challenger in the November election. She had briefly faced a challenge by Libertarian Party candidate Carol Moore, but Moore recently backed out to run as a shadow representative, a largely ceremonial role not recognized by Congress.
With Lieberman's assistance in the Senate, Norton's Taxation Without Representation Act will finally be getting a hearing on May 22 in the Senate Government Affairs Committee that Lieberman chairs. A rally and lobby day is planned by activists on May 15.
Norton's ability to get the representation bill that far is a testament to what supporters say has been a record of effectiveness in spite of having no voting rights.
"Despite being denied a vote in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Norton has remained a very powerful voice in the Congress and in the Congressional Black Caucus," said caucus Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. "The residents of the District of Columbia simply could not have a better advocate in this Congress."
A self-described feminist and civil rights activist, Norton has consistently taken the more left-of-center position on the issues facing her district and the country, including her support of the D.C. ban on handguns, opposition to the death penalty and a requirement that district employees' health plans include contraceptive coverage.
She has also been effective in bringing home the bacon. During her term in office, she has secured $1 billion for district street repairs and $75 million for the city’s water system, above and beyond what legislators have budgeted for the district's annual budget, which the federal government largely pays.
Norton has also helped cut the city’s tax burden from $660 million to $198 million and secured tax breaks for downtown businesses. She is currently pushing for Congress to approve a system in which a certain percentage of the federal tax payment will stay in the district to cover "commuter services," like transportation, that the city is required to pay.
Norton complains that unlike states, which foot the bill for courts, transportation and other public services, D.C is forced to pay for its own while commuters from neighboring Virginia and Maryland pay taxes elsewhere. She said her plan would provide $400 million to cover the "structural deficit."
"We can’t raise the money now because we cannot tax further," she said. "It shouldn’t get opposition from my regional colleagues because they wouldn’t have to pay for it."