The Argument From Corruption

Photo by Andrew Bossi

Those who follow the theater of setbacks to true home rule in DC know that the recent federal budget compromise includes stipulations on how the District’s local government can spend the tax money it raised from residents. Then our mayor, along with a few other representatives and several dozen civilians went and got themselves arrested in protest.

Those of us who live in DC face a unique situation in this country–while we do have representatives that we elect, who can tax us, ultimately how they decide to use that money can be overruled by a body that is not elected by us. I would never argue that voting guarantees liberty or perfect outcomes, but I have to think that the selection pressures that a Congressman or Senator faces does not align them with the interests of District residents.

But I don’t want to get into an in-depth argument over DC home rule or federal representation. I want to address a specific argument I have heard in defense of Congress’ authority over our local budget: the argument from corruption.

The argument is simple–DC’s short history of home rule is infamous for its corruption. Marion Barry in particular is an embarrassment, past and present, to those who would make a case for home rule.

Yet this argument seems frankly irrelevant to me. For better or worse, corruption or lack thereof is not the criteria on which we grant representation in this country.

If it were, Louisiana and Illinois would probably have had their federal representation and local sovereignty revoked long ago. Here are some stats provided by Slate:

According to data collected by Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, more than 1,000 public officials and business people from Illinois have been convicted in federal corruption cases since 1971. Of those, an astonishing 30 were Chicago aldermen; that’s around 20 percent of those elected to the City Council during that period.

And on Louisiana:

According to statistics compiled by the Corporate Crime Reporter, it was No. 1 for the period between 1997 and 2006, with 326 federal corruption convictions. That’s a rate of 7.67 per 100,000 residents.

The point is not that the people of Illinois and Louisiana should lose their right to vote. The point is that the argument from corruption is irrelevant to the discussion of home rule. Corruption is a real problem in the District, and one that we need to sort out. But our current paternalistic arrangement with Congress is not the answer.