The ongoing conflicts between the District of Columbia and the federal government reflect broader efforts that undermine local control. From tax reform to budget cuts, policymakers in Washington have been chipping away at the autonomy of the nation’s capital with serious implications for its residents.

Despite being home to over 700,000 residents, Washington, D.C., is treated as a second-class entity in the United States, as it lacks voting representation in Congress. Furthermore, its budget, laws, and regulations are subject to federal oversight, which at times has resulted in clashes with local leaders who advocate for more autonomy for the city.

One of the most egregious examples of the federal government’s overreach into D.C. affairs is the rider attached to the 2017 federal budget that prohibited the city from using its own funds to legalize and regulate marijuana. Despite the fact that over 70 percent of D.C. voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing the drug in 2014, the rider endangered the livelihoods of countless citizens and resulted in a messy legal battle. It wasn’t until 2021 that marijuana possession and cultivation were officially legalized in the District by congressional action.

Similarly, the federal government has long imposed restrictions on the District’s budget, limiting its ability to spend funds on certain programs or initiatives despite local demands. In 1995, Congress passed the District of Columbia Financial Control Board Act, which established a board to “oversee and approve” D.C.’s spending plan. While the board was formally dissolved in 2001, the legacy of its bureaucracy continues to stifle the District’s autonomy.

The recent conflict between D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the federal government over the deployment of National Guard troops during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 further exposed the limits of local control. Despite pleas from the city’s leadership for more flexibility in deploying the Guard and a request for additional troops, the Department of Defense denied their requests, leaving D.C. residents and businesses vulnerable to violence and destruction.

The battles over local control also extend to tax reform, with the federal government imposing burdensome tax policies on the District without any input from its residents. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, for example, reduced the tax benefits of homeownership in the District, leading to an increase in the number of households paying higher taxes.

Moreover, the pandemic has brought new challenges and exacerbated existing ones for the District. Despite widespread recognition that the city has been hit hard by the virus and faces significant budget shortfalls, Republican lawmakers have excluded the District from receiving the same level of disaster aid as states, subjecting it to more economic insecurity.

The broader implications of these efforts to undermine local control are far-reaching. They not only leave D.C. residents feeling voiceless in the democratic process but also demonstrate the hypocrisy of policymakers who claim to support limited government and local control while actively working to undermine it.

A recent report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute argues that these kinds of restrictions put a “political and economic straitjacket” on D.C. and limit its ability to provide vital services to its residents. Indeed, the lack of autonomy has made it difficult for the District to address some of its most pressing issues, including affordable housing, public safety, and healthcare.

What’s more, it’s important to recognize that these restrictions have a disproportionate impact on communities of color, which make up a majority of D.C.’s population. According to the Brookings Institution, D.C. has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country, with Black households facing nearly twice the poverty rate of white households. Limiting the District’s ability to implement policies that address these inequalities only exacerbates the problem and leaves marginalized groups behind.

Ultimately, the District of Columbia’s conflicts with the federal government are symptomatic of broader efforts to undercut local control, undermine democracy, and restrict the autonomy of communities across the country. While these efforts may seem like a distant concern to many Americans, they have real and tangible consequences for the residents of D.C. and should be taken seriously.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.” It is time for policymakers at all levels of government to recognize that undermining local control will only lead to greater conflict and division. We must recognize the value of democracy and partnership with our fellow citizens, particularly in the political era that we’re living in today.