Vexation about DC representation

One of the new Republican Congressional majority’s first moves in January 2011 was a smack-down of the 600,000 residents of Washington DC.  On the very first day of the 112th Congress, the Republican-controlled House revoked DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D-DC) right to vote in the Committee of the Whole—an already essentially ceremonial practice. And so, DC citizens—who vote, pay full federal taxes, and are eligible to serve in the military like all other US citizens—lost their last vestige of representation in Congress.

The inherent unfairness of this rule is obvious in a District that pays more federal taxes than 19 states and has more citizens than the entire state of Wyoming. The arguments behind it have proven specious again and again. Speaker of the House John Boehner led the most recent move to deprive DC citizens of a fundamental right, contending that representation is unconstitutional. His position ignores a 1994 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right of the DC Delegate [and a representative from Puerto Rico] to vote in the Committee of the Whole.

Time line

DC representation in Congress has had many ups and downs, which parallel the see-saw between party majorities. DC Vote offers a handy timeline, chronicling the political football that DC representation has been through the years:

1871: An elected House of Delegates and a non-voting delegate to Congress are created.

1874: The territorial government of the District of Columbia, including the non-voting delegate to Congress is abolished. [This status continues for 96 years.]

1961: 23rd Amendment grants DC citizens the right to vote for President

1970:  Congress [Democratic majority] allows the District of Columbia to elect a Delegate to the House of Representatives. Walter Fauntroy is elected in 1971.

1991: Eleanor Holmes Norton elected

1993: Rights of the Delegates and the Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner are expanded.[Democratic majority].

As of 1993, the DC Delegate was allowed to vote in standing committees, such as the Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, because, “committees do not pass final legislation and their actions are not binding on the House of Representatives.” DC Delegate Eleanor Homes Norton successfully argued that, using this logic, she should be allowed to vote in the Committee of the Whole as well.

In 1994, Republicans filed a lawsuit [Michel v. Anderson] challenging Congress’s constitutional authority to allow delegate voting in the Committee of the Whole. A U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the DC Delegate’s right to vote.

However [and with DC representation, there seems always to be a “however,”], even that court victory had limitations:

… if any measure passed or failed in the Committee of the Whole because of a delegate’s vote, a second vote—excluding the delegates—would be taken. In other words, delegates were permitted to vote only if their votes had no effect on a measure’s ultimate outcome.

Back to the timeline:

1995: Republicans take control of the House in the 104th Congress—the first change in party control in 40 years, and make major changes to the House rules, including rescinding the right of Delegates to vote in the Committee of the Whole.

2007:  A new Democratic majority reinstates the right of Delegates to vote in the Committee of the Whole with House Resolution 78, by a vote of 226-191

More recently—most notably in 2010—attempts  to pass DC voting-rights bills have failed when Republicans attached amendments that would have negated the District’s strict gun-control laws. Another proposed deal called for the quid pro quo of adding another Congressional district in Republican-dominated Utah.

Along the way, politicians have taken some noteworthy and quote-worthy stands regarding DC voting: For example:

  • The late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a supporter of DC voting rights in Congress, once said the reason Republicans won’t support full representation for DC is because “it’s too liberal, too urban, too democratic, and too black.”
  • In a show of support for the city, President Bill Clinton used “Taxation Without Representation” plates on the presidential limousine. President George W. Bush had them removed.
  • Republican Party Platform 1976:
    “We…support giving the District of Columbia voting representation in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.”

For now, DC once again remains unrepresented in Congress in any meaningful way, and the longstanding “taxation without representation” argument rages on. Some DC voting-rights activists have proposed a twist on that argument, calling for an end to federal taxation in the District to parallel its citizens’ lack of representation. In the meantime, House Speaker Boehner and Congressional Republicans continue to deny DC citizens representation, while attempting to impose their political preferences on the District by loosening gun laws and pushing school vouchers.

Can this injustice resolved?

DC Vote puts it this way:

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that all Americans deserve democracy. Opinions from conservative legal experts like Judge Kenneth Starr and Professor Viet D. Dinh support Congress’ authority under the Constitution to give the District of Columbia voting representation in Congress through simple legislation. Congress does not need to amend the Constitution or make DC a state to give DC a vote in Congress.

With voting representation equal to that of other Americans, DC will be better empowered to end congressional interference in local matters, have an equal vote on important national issues and tackle local problems with more resources and greater freedom.

About Gloria Shur Bilchik:
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.