DC Edges Closer to Representation

DC Edges Closer to Representation

The residents of the District of Columbia go to war and pay taxes, but they have never had a member of Congress to call their own. A measure has been introduced in the House that could change all that–maybe.


You may recall from high school civics class that our nation’s capital lacks Congressional representation. Congress manages the budget of the District of Columbia, but DC’s residents have little say in the matter; they go to war, they pay taxes, but they do not have a member of Congress to call their own.

All of this could change if legislation pending before the House Judiciary Committee finds its way to the President’s desk. The Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act would grant the District a single voting representative in the House of Representatives in exchange for adding another representative to Utah’s delegation. The conventional wisdom is that Washington would vote in a Democrat while Utah, a historically red state, would elect a Republican. The political status quo in the House would be maintained but with 437 members rather than 435. The bill does not mention the Senate; typically, each body does not intrude upon the workings of the other.

Unlike previous attempts to turn the District into a state–this measure has a shot of passage. The Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, James Sensenbrenner, has guaranteed that the bill will make it to markup, the stage where proposed legislation is rewritten prior to a committee vote to send it to the floor. And the bill–co-sponsored by Republican Representative Tom Davis of Virginia and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s Democratic nonvoting delegate in the House–has drawn support from across the ideological divide. Former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, former Bush II Justice Department attorney Viet Dinh and former GOP Representative Jack Kemp have each called for its passage–as have many civil rights proponents. Some House Republicans, such as Ohio’s Steve Chabot, oppose the current measure, contending that the Constitution relegates the District to only a federal enclave and says nothing about voting rights.

Outside the House, there are District advocates who also are not fans of this measure. They consider it insufficient and a distraction from the main issue: statehood. A movement for granting the District statehood has been around for decades, though it has not made much progress. (In 1993, when the Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, a statehood measure lost in the House on a 2-to-1 vote.) Bill Moseley, a registered Democrat and member of Stand Up for Democracy in DC, which advocates for statehood, is dissatisfied with the bill: “While I’m not statehood or nothing,” he said, “I do view this compromise as a dead end. It prevents any future moves on fuller rights further down the road, so why give up?”

The legislation does not address statehood at all. Some of the strongest proponents of statehood believe that should this bill pass, Congressmen will argue that the statehood issue is resolved–and the statehood movement will be set back. Philip Blair, a ward candidate for the Green Party and longtime statehood champion, says, “This could be the worst thing to happen to our goals.” Progressives would rather continue fighting for statehood than accept what they see as a minimal concession from lawmakers.

Statehood advocates have slammed Norton for accepting the representation-only measure. They argue it’s too much of a compromise. “I know how these things are, but I wish we could have something better, that’s for sure,” says Paul Strauss, the District’s nonvoting shadow senator. For her part, Norton notes that she is also a sponsor of a statehood measure–though this legislation is mostly symbolic and is going nowhere in the GOP-controlled Congress. “A compromise on statehood is not what I’d hoped for,” she says, “and I do view [statehood] as a civil rights issue.” She also claims that Davis’s original version of the representation legislation called for DC residents to vote for a representative in a Maryland Congressional district. But Norton would not sign on until the bill gave the District its own representative.

Proponents of the bill, including the nonpartisan group DC Vote, maintain that success on the representation front will not impede efforts to obtain statehood for Washington. Contrary to the concerns of statehood activists, these representation proponents say that too much time has been spent dithering over how DC will gain rights and that there is now an opportunity for some change–even if incremental. “We have bipartisan support, we have a willing committee–we have to do it now,” said the group’s director, Ilir Zherka.

The District will continue to be an aberration until its residents are completely enfranchised. As Davis himself put it, “We’re bringing democracy to Iraq and half a million people in Washington can’t vote for a representative? There’s something inconsistent about that.”

Statehood is not likely to happen anytime soon. There’s little chance the Senate will grant the District (which has more residents than the state of Wyoming) two votes in that chamber. But if Norton and Davis succeed, Washington’s residents may gain partial political rights. Then local license plates will have to be changed to read: “No Taxation without full Representation.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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