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If the District wants the same rights as states,... it should keep its fingers out of the pockets of its neighbors.

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D.C. Shouldn’t Attack Neighbors’ Liberty With Commuter Tax

Americans take taxation seriously. From the earliest days of our constitutional government, our leaders understood that taxes were an attack on freedom and liberty. In 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall famously declared that the "power to tax involves, necessarily, a power to destroy." Until the 16th Amendment was approved in 1913, the federal government was barred from levying an income tax, and questions about tax policy continue to dominate the public debate.

Today, the District of Columbia seeks to interject its authority into the tax policy of its neighbors and levy an income tax on the citizens of Virginia and Maryland who happen to work each day in the District.

There’s just one problem: the District of Columbia’s government doesn’t have the authority to attack the liberty of people who are not citizens of the District through an income tax. In fact, in and of itself, the D.C. government has no authority to do anything. It has only what authority Congress grants it. And Congress has specifically barred the District from taxing its neighbors.

So why are we talking about this? This week, a federal judge heard initial arguments in the District’s suit seeking to declare the law barring a D.C. commuter tax unconstitutional. The District argues that Congress is limiting the rights of D.C. residents by barring a commuter tax. The District also contends that its citizens’ rights were violated because the District has no vote in Congress, and thus, no way to make the citizens’ voice heard on the issue.

These arguments, while creative, are also malarkey.

In their responses, the federal government and Attorneys General from Maryland and Virginia hit on a number of key points. For example, they point out that the District is not a state, and doesn’t have the same rights as states. They also argued that commuters already pay sufficient taxes to the District through sales, meals, and other levies, to cover the services that they utilize during their days at work, and they shouldn’t have to pay for services that they won’t ever be able use as non-residents.

Let’s also recall that the District receives countless millions of dollars a year from taxpayers across the nation thanks to Congress’s generosity — and a recognition that the nation should contribute to maintaining the federal city.

The fundamental problem remains the District government’s utter inability to manage itself. The District has some of the most liberal social programs in the nation; it spends more per child on public education than most cities its size and the most affluent jurisdictions in the country. Yet its public schools continue to rank as some of the worst in the nation thanks to the waste, abuse, fraud, and outright theft that is all too common in D.C.’s government.

Throughout our history, when governments have sought to curtail the rights of citizens, courts have held them to a very high standard, forcing the government to demonstrate a "compelling interest" in order to justify its action. In the case of the D.C. commuter tax, the District seeks to limit the rights of non-residents through taxation under authority it doesn’t have to achieve ends that it ought to be able to accomplish through other means. If there was ever a time to hold a government to a high standard, this is it.

So where is the compelling interest? That the citizens of the District need more money for government services? This year, despite its mismanagement, the district ran a budget surplus. Does D.C. contend that in order to make all rights equal, the liberty of Virginians and Marylanders should be limited? That’s absurd.

If the District wants the same rights as states, it should continue its campaign to persuade Congress to make it the 51st star on our flag. Until then, it should keep its fingers out of the pockets of its neighbors.

[Posted February 19, 2004]

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