In 2007, the 600,000 disenfranchised residents of Washington, DC werejust three votes shy of overcoming aRepublican filibuster and passing legislation to givethem a voting representative in Congress for the first time. OnTuesday, the House took up the fight to strengthen our democracy onceagain, as Congressman Jerry Nadler chaired the Subcommittee on theConstitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing on the “Districtof Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009.”
The room was packed with citizens from the District–so many werethere that they were ushered to a spillover room down the corridor whereproceedings could be viewed on closed-circuit TV. The Mayor of DC,Adrian Fenty, was on hand even though he wasn’t a witness, as wasCongresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
There were a slew of witnesses advocating for this bill–as thereshould be for something so key to our forming a more perfect union–including: Majority Leader Steny Hoyer; former Republican CongressmanTom Davis; President of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, WadeHenderson; US Army Guard Captain and Bronze Star recipient–and nativeof the District of Columbia — Yolanda Lee; and Viet Dinh, an AssistantAttorney General under that guy who thankfully is back in Crawford. Also entered into the record were letters of support from twenty-five leadingconstitutional scholars and Judge Kenneth Starr–yes, that KennethStarr.
Hoyer told the subcommittee he intends to bring the bill to the floorfor a vote “in the very near term.”
“Out of all the world’s democracies,” Hoyer said, “Washington DC… isthe only capitol in the free world whose citizens do not have a votingmember in their Parliament. This bill is about setting that blightright… As our nation’s story tells us again and again, a vote meansdignity.”
Republican opponents of this bill–all of whom claimed that theysupport voting representation for District residents–said thatCongress can’t give the District a seat in the House because theConstitution says that is reserved for representatives of states. Former Congressman Davis pointed out that by that logic the federalgovernment wouldn’t be able to tax District residents because it isn’t astate; District residents wouldn’t have a right to a jury trial; andCongress wouldn’t be able to regulate the District as part of interstatecommerce.
“If Congress has the authority to [protect and enforce] constitutionallygranted rights and duties,” Davis said, “there should be no question ithas the same authority to protect the most sacred right of everyAmerican–to live and participate in a representative republic.”
Indeed, former Assistant Attorney General Dinh pointed out that “theConstitution grants Congress the broadest possible legislative authorityover the District of Columbia,” a power “described as majestic inscope.”
Proponents know that if the bill is signed into law it will face a legalchallenge and probably end up before the Supreme Court. “But whicheverside we come down on, I think we can agree that legal arguments are bestsorted out in the courts,” Majority Leader Hoyer said. “At this pointin the debate, we should make our case on principle, nottechnicalities. If you oppose this bill, you need to tell us: Just whatdoes our country gain by treating the people of Washington, DCdifferently from America’s other 300 million?”
That “different treatment” was perhaps best captured by fourthgeneration Washingtonian and former Iraq combat logistical patrolcommander, Captain Lee, who said, “I am proud to be an American. I amproud to be a Washingtonian. And I am proud to be a soldier. That willnever change. But I ask you to change my status as an American citizenwho pays taxes and serves in war and peace, but is entitled only to anon-voting delegate in the US House of Representatives.”
The hearing wasn’t lacking in the bizarre. Texas Republican CongressmanLouie Gohmert is against this bill, but said repeatedly that he isreally moved by DC’s “Taxation without Representation” license platesand the plight of the District residents. His solution? He’s offeringa bill that would end federal taxes for District residents. Screw therepresentation, end the taxation. (Definitely not a great move for thecountry at this moment–DC pays the second highest per capita federalincome taxes.) The other idea repeatedly offered by Republicans: givethe District to Maryland.
After the hearing, (non-voting) Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton madethe keen observation that all of these Republicans so concerned aboutthe constitutionality of this bill seem to have no questions whatsoeverabout the constitutionality of simply handing the District over toMaryland. She also addressed my concern about President Barack Obama’srecent comment to the Washington Post that he supports a voting representative for the District, “But this takes on a partisan flavor, and, you know, right now I think our legislative agenda’s chock-full.”
“I talked to them afterwards to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood,” shesaid. “The President co-sponsored the bill. That comment came up interms of his own priorities… economic stimulus priorities. [Theytried] to throw him into the mix of something that he has noresponsibility for. All I need him to do is sign the bill…. We don’twant him in that part of the mix [in Congress]–because it’s gettingreal partisan over here…. As far as I’m concerned he’s already signedit, because he’s a cosponsor of the bill.”
Ilir Zherka, Executive Director of the education and advocacyorganization DC Vote, also attended the hearing. He’s been working on this bill for sixyears and told me he’s optimistic about its chances. “Ultimately,elections matter,” Zherka said. “And what happened last year was thatthere were a bunch of very important elections–most of them broke ourway, we have more support in the Senate as a result, and of course wehave President Barack Obama who will sign this into law.”
But Zherka also said the bill’s “opponents are both smart and determinedto stop us.” They will try to introduce amendments that are “poisonpills”, and then there are the delay tactics of Senate Minority LeaderDr. No (my nickname for McConnell, not Zherka’s). Zherka would like tosee President Obama help build momentum for the bill by switching thetags on his motorcade to DC’s “Taxation without Representation” plates–which he feels would receive media coverage nationwide and worldwide–and take the opportunity on Lincoln’s birthday to speak to “the incomplete democracy that we have in the nation’s capitol, and how important it is to finish the work of Lincoln here in Washington, DC.”
DC Voting Rights were well represented in Congress yesterday, but thisfight is just beginning–once again. You can tell President Obamathat you hope he will do what he can to support this effort by clickinghere.
With reporting from Capitol Hill by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writerliving in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.