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Flat tax for D.C.? Here we go again
(Published April 3, 2006)


When Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, proposed that residents of the District of Columbia pay federal taxes at a single, "flat" rate rather than at rates that increase as income rises as the District and the rest of the United States do now the voice that rang in my head was that of Ronald Reagan. The late movie star-turned-president (no great friend of the people of D.C., I should point out) was remembered for a response to comments by Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate the seemingly throwaway but effective "There you go again."

And indeed, there they go again that is, Republicans in Congress again using D.C. as a guinea pig for policies favored by the right wing; policies that, for the most part, even the constituents of Brownback and other heartland politicians would reject.

The most recent experiment foisted upon the District by the mad scientists in Congress was the school voucher program, launched in 2004, which allows students from "low-performing" schools to attend private schools at public expense. While the full impact of the program has yet to be felt, it's important to note that vouchers were foisted upon the District without the request or approval of any local body, and by a Congress that has never shown much interest in ensuring adequate funding for existing public schools, either here or anywhere else.

In addition, the District now has been laboring for eight years under an especially pernicious form of "just say no" to drugs through a prohibition on spending funds even locally raised funds on needle exchange programs designed to prevent HIV/AIDS. While there is no evidence to indicate this experiment has induced intravenous drug users to clean up, it is without dispute that the ban has helped to explode the HIV rate in the District, where one in 20 residents lives with the virus the highest rate in the United States.

This is not the first time Brownback has used his position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on D.C. to affect local policy in the District. Last year, he was behind the transfer of a 15-acre site near RFK Stadium to the SEED Foundation to build a charter school, notwithstanding that other charter schools in the District are suffering severe space shortages. Also last year, he "warned" the District not to allow gay marriage, even though the local government was considering no such proposal.

Brownback's committee held a hearing on the flat-tax proposal on March 8 that featured testimony from former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and representatives of three conservative think tanks the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation. Missing from the panel was anyone speaking for the people of the District. The message from Congress was clear: We don't care what D.C. residents think.

Although the hearing featured testimony only about how a flat tax will contribute to prosperity and happiness, there are a number of reasons to be wary about it. As Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and others have pointed out, under the Brownback proposal taxpayers no longer would be able to claim deductions such as those for mortgage interest, charitable contributions and the Earned Income Tax Credit. In addition, a flat tax could accelerate gentrification and reduce the already shrinking supply of affordable housing in D.C., since lowering the top rate would encourage wealthier people to move into the District.

One might ask Brownback why he proposed that the District be the target of his experiment, rather than his own Kansas or any other state for that matter. After all, the proposal is to change the way federal taxes are collected and in that respect Congress has as much power over the states as it has over D.C. The fact that the District is subject to congressional legislative oversight gives Capitol Hill the ability to interfere in our internal affairs but this is a federal, not a local, revenue matter. So why us? I would suggest it is because Brownback would suffer the wrath of his constituents if he proposed foisting such a scheme on Kansas, and members of Congress from other states are no more eager to have their voters become laboratory rats. What the District lacks is voting senators and representatives who can fight back on equal terms.

So far, the flat-tax proposal is not much more than talk, and there is time to stop it before it gains momentum. It's time once again to block an unwarranted federal intrusion into District affairs. Yes, here we go again.


Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. Coalition. Contact him at or (202) 232-2500 ext. 3.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator