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Democratic Government

This post over at ARLnow caught my eye. Arlington wants to take action against plastic bag pollution, but it's hit a roadblock:
Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Arlington must first ask the state legislature for permission to pursue policies not specifically allowed by state law. In past years, the state government has been reluctant to grant Arlington any new taxing power.
To me, this brings up interesting issues about representative democracy. If Arlington County wants to tax plastic bags, they need to approval of the state government, which is reluctant to allow them to do so. On the flip side, when DC wanted to impose the same tax, they did it, because they didn’t have to seek the same permission from people with different interests hundreds of miles away.

(from Idiolector on Flickr)

On the other hand, District residents have no representation in the U.S. Congress, which is a significant and commonly-known problem; and by-law, the federal government still has power over the District. But on local issues, DC is often able to govern itself, which is why DDOT, it seems, can implement such progressive changes to the city’s transportation infrastructure that cities in Virginia and Maryland struggle with.

In a way, it’s a look at what cities might be like if their interests weren’t co-opted by people who don’t live in, nor have any interest in, the city itself. More broadly, it's a question of democratic government. Is it always superior to give people a say on issues that don't have a direct relationship to those issues?


Barry said…
I think outsiders having a hand in local policy is the nature of the democratic beast, unfortunately. DC has only really had a free hand for the last four years because the Democrats controlled the House. Once the GOP and Jason Chaffetz take power it's going to be a lot harder for the DC gov. to get anything done without the threat of meddling from on high.

The same goes for any other city. Cities can't support themselves in a vacuum. Even NYC, which I think has done a lot more as far as transportation improvements than DC, still gets a lot of its transportation funding from the state and federal government. And with that money comes strings, which is why NYC couldn't enact their congestion pricing plan in 2008.

In this way, I think there's always going to be someone, for one reason or another, from the outside who is going to get to have a say. The only difference is some places have slightly more benevolent outsiders than others.
There are a few counter-examples I can think of:

Federal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act and Civil Voting Rights Act on southern states, even though the laws were unpopular there.

Any case where a city, county, or state overrules a neighborhood NIMBY crowd in order to serve the greater public interest.
ZZinDC said…
Cities are typically creatures of their state - the state government creates cities by incorporating them; the charter defines the relationship between the state and the city. The state, being the parent, usually reserves certain rights to itself, but most cities have a lot of leeway to make their own decisions. What's different in DC is that, even though home rule does allow the city to self-govern, in a fashion, every single act of the city council is subject to Congressional review and possible rejection - they cannot go into effect until the Congressional review period have ended. This includes the annual budget, which is paid for by the DC taxpayers, not the federal government. Although most state legislatures could possibly take an interest in a city's laws, only in the DC-Congress relation does the parent have such complete control. Yes, this is based on the Constitution, and possibly made sense in the early years, but it has become increasingly cumbersome in the modern city. I wish our city leaders would shift their goal away from achieving voting representation in Congress for DC (which is unlikely and probably unconstitutional) and focus on urging Congress to give the District legislative independence over laws legally passed by the elected representatives of the people, the City Council.

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