Overview of This Week’s Report: “D.C. Voting Rights”

April 17, 2008

As members of the 299th Combat Engineer Company, Specialists Marcus Gray, Isaac Lewis and Emory Kosh cleared landmines from assault lanes during the invasion of Baghdad in 2003. When the Iraqis damaged a crucial bridge across the Euphrates River, they helped build a temporary span.In most ways, the 299th was typical of hundreds of Army Reserve and National Guard units across the country. They volunteered to serve, and several members of the unit were injured in accidents or in insurgent attacks. But Gray, Lewis and Kosh were different. They are residents of Washington, D.C., which has no voting representation in either the House or the Senate. In effect, they had no say in the nation’s decision to go to war, unlike other Americans.

“Its like you all can use me for this, but my voice is not going to be heard in anything else,” says Gray, 25, now a staff sergeant. “Everybody should have a right to have their voice heard in one way or another.”

In January 2005 Gray, Lewis and Kosh went to Capitol Hill to ask lawmakers why, after risking their lives to bring democracy to Baghdad, they should be denied a basic democratic right in the capital of the United States. “The maximum is what my buddies and I are pledged to give,” said Lewis at a press conference. “We believe that voting representation is not too much to ask in return.” Seven soldiers and Marines from Washington had died in Iraq and Afghanistan as of April 2007. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, shares the frustration of Gray and her other constituents. “This is an insult and a disgrace – to be denominated a second-class citizen with no say,” she says in an interview. “Your folks are in Iraq now, and Eleanor Norton is going to Arlington National Cemetery to bury people and you didn’t have a say on whether they go or not.”

For more than 200 years District residents have had no vote in Congress. In 1787 the Constitution envisaged a new seat of government, a federal district in which Congress would have absolute authority. But the Framers of the Constitution failed to include any provision for the democratic rights of the residents of the new capital. By oversight or intent, the Constitution’s silence has left District citizens as the only Americans who pay federal taxes but have no voting representation in Congress – giving those Americans who live closest to the Capitol the least influence inside it.

The District has been a unique political entity in America since its conception – not part of any state and controlled exclusively by Congress and the federal government. Congress’ control is so absolute that for 100 years the District had no elected local government and was run by commissioners appointed by the president and answerable to those on Capitol Hill. In fact, District residents have been allowed to elect their own mayor and City Council only for the past 34 years. And Congress still maintains line item control over city finances, not only for federal funds but locally raised revenues as well, which make up the majority of the budget. Congress also has the power to impose or annul any laws passed by the city government.

With the District enjoying a booming economy and more effective local government, congressional committees have granted Washington somewhat greater autonomy in recent years. Nevertheless, it remains effectively a colony of the federal government, with no vote in the decisions of that government.

Since 1970 the District has been allowed a non-voting delegate to the House, who can introduce legislation, serve on and vote in some committees but cannot vote on the House floor to pass or reject laws.

“What determines the direction of the country is the final vote,” said Norton, who has served as delegate since 1991. “And the people who live in the capital do not have that. There is no way in which that can be considered to be equality of treatment among citizens of the United States.”

The issue of District voting rights is intertwined with the issue of race and congressional rule of a city that has had a large black population since before the Civil War and a black majority since the mid-1950s. Many residents see representation as an unfinished chapter of the nation’s two-century journey towards full civil rights for all Americans.

“No taxation without representation,” while not enshrined in the Constitution, has nevertheless been a fundamental American principle since it was first shouted in 1763 in protest against taxes imposed by a distant British Parliament on unrepresented American colonies. While other states’ license plates celebrate their natural beauty, history, state motto or tourist attractions, District tags read simply “WASHINGTON, DC TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION.” In February 2008 the U.S. Mint rejected the city’s design for its “state” quarter, which also included the slogan.

Moreover, the United States is the only country in the world that denies the citizens of its capital representation in its national legislature, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The intergovernmental human rights and democracy organization, co-founded by the United States, called on the United States to grant the District equal voting rights. In introducing a bill to give the District full representation, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., called the District’s voteless status “not only a national embarrassment, it is a grave injustice and at complete odds with the democratic principles on which our great nation was founded.”

A majority of Americans don’t know the District lacks voting representation. A 2005 poll commissioned by voting-rights advocates found that 78 percent of Americans were not aware that District residents did not enjoy the same voting rights as their fellow citizens – and 82 percent of those who were unaware supported full representation for the District.

It is hard to find anyone who publicly opposes some sort of voting representation for the District, at least in principle. But there remain strong disagreements among politicians and lawyers over how to grant representation.

Remedies to the District’s disenfranchisement range from legislation to a constitutional amendment to the granting of statehood to the retrocession of all but the central governmental core of the capital to the state of Maryland. Hundreds of different proposals have emerged over the past two centuries, but all have faced practical, political and constitutional objections, and none has succeeded. A constitutional amendment granting the District a full congressional delegation passed both houses of Congress in 1978 but failed to be ratified by the necessary three-quarters of the states.The latest attempt to give the District a vote in Congress was last year’s District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act. In what Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., termed “an exquisitely balanced compromise,” the measure, S 1257, would have provided the District a single seat in the House of Representatives, paired with a new seat for Utah, which claimed it had been cheated of a seat by undercounting in the 2000 census. The bill won the endorsement of a broad spectrum of legal scholars, including notable conservatives such as former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr and former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Viet Dinh, a principal author of the USA Patriot Act.

The bill passed the House with wide bipartisan support and had the support of a majority of the Senate, including eight Republicans. But at the last minute the GOP leadership blocked a floor vote on the measure, effectively killing it.

The bill’s supporters accused the Republican leadership of sacrificing citizens’ fundamental democratic rights, blocking the bill on partisan political grounds simply because the District is overwhelmingly Democratic and 60 percent black. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted his opposition was not meant to disenfranchise voters but only to protect the Constitution from “a bill that constitutes, in my view, a fundamental assault against it.”

“District residents who want to vote need to amend the Constitution,” McConnell said, “not cut out parts of it they don’t like.”

Currently, the bill is stalled, but voting-rights advocates are vowing to renew efforts to get it passed this spring, despite threats of a veto from the White House.

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