October 18, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 10
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So close, yet still out of reach: Minority of senators stand in way of D.C. voting rights

Marc H. Morial

The drive to grant Washington, D.C., representation on Capitol Hill has been bogged down for years by partisan infighting.

For the first time in 30 years of activism surrounding D.C. voting rights, lawmakers from both parties are beginning to see eye-to-eye on the issue, giving the district’s residents a glimmer of hope that they would have at least one voting member in the U.S. Congress. The district currently has a shadow representative in veteran politician Eleanor Holmes Norton — who has voting power in committee, but not on the House floor.

In 2007, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle rallied around compromise legislation, which Virginia GOP Rep. Thomas M. Davis originally devised during the previous Congress to “take the partisanship” out of the debate, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story.

To assuage Republican concerns that granting a seat for the majority-Democratic District of Columbia would upset the balance of power, he proposed adding a new congressional district in Utah, a highly Republican state where population growth has warranted an expansion in the number of House seats it is entitled to. It was a brilliant example of striking compromise on highly partisan Capitol Hill. Back in late 2006, the state’s legislature approved new congressional district lines for the creation of the fourth seat, paving the way for Congress to push through its D.C. voting rights bill this year.

The legislation seemed to be poised for smooth sailing, with the full U.S. House of Representatives passing it by a vote of 241 to 177 earlier this year. It had the support of prominent Republicans, including presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, former Rep. Jack Kemp and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

The Senate Judiciary Committee then approved it by a 9-1 vote, with the lone dissenter being Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s powerful Republican leader.

Much like the Bush administration that has issued a veto threat over the plan, McConnell maintains that the legislation is unconstitutional because the Constitution only grants congressional representation to the states, and D.C. is not a state. It’s a stance reportedly supported by veteran Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of Virginia.

McConnell and Byrd contend that D.C. should become a state if it wants congressional representation. But that would require an amendment to the Constitution, which needs the support of two-thirds of Congress and three-fifths of state legislatures, a daunting task to say the least. A statehood effort in 1985 surmounted the necessary hurdles on the congressional front, but fell short on the state front.

Others, such as former special independent prosecutor and U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, maintain that the Constitution’s Framers did not intend to exclude D.C. from congressional representation and that Congress is well within its power to grant it through legislation as opposed to a constitutional amendment.

“There is nothing in our Constitution’s history or its fundamental principles suggesting that the Framers intended to deny the precious right to vote to those who live in the capital of the great democracy they founded,” Starr and co-author Patricia M. Wald, a retired chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, wrote in a recent Washington Post editorial.

Thanks in part to lobbying against the bill by McConnell and others, in September the Senate fell three votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a threatened filibuster and proceed to the floor for a full vote.

The chamber’s inability to muster the necessary support to move on the proposal represents the first filibuster of a voting rights bill since the era of segregation.

Like other Americans, D.C. residents pay taxes, serve on juries and serve their country. Why shouldn’t they get representation in the same body that sends the nation to war?

“This is fairness,” observed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to the Los Angeles Times recently. “It’s the right thing to do.”

With the 2008 election season in full swing, at least at the presidential level, more than half a million D.C. residents should not have to wait a minute longer to have the same voting rights of every other tax-paying American living outside the district’s limits. Without a full voice in Congress, they are merely second-class citizens.

In the words of a recent New York Times editorial, “it’s time to end the embarrassing servitude of Washington, D.C., which is denied true democratic representation.”

Securing House representation for D.C. residents is a major priority of the National Urban League, as well as for the entire civil rights community. We urge the U.S. Senate to revisit the legislation this year and bring it to the floor for a full vote. The chamber must resist the efforts of a minority of senators to hold this important bill hostage.

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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