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D.C. needs a constitutional amendment to get a House vote

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, April 24, 2010; A13

Enacting D.C. voting rights legislation with a "poison pill" gun amendment attached would have been worse than winning ugly. It would have meant accepting the assertion that Americans in the District of Columbia don't have a fundamental right to representation in Congress; that D.C. congressional representation is a privilege that Congress may extend or withhold as it sees fit.

The voting rights bill pulled by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) this week was not worth having, even if it would have allowed D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to vote on the floor of the House. Under terms of the now-scuttled bill, Holmes would have enjoyed that privilege -- only until another Congress decided otherwise.

The District and Congress have played "Lucy and the football" before, with the city ending up looking like Charlie Brown.

Remember when, in the early '90s, House Democrats devised a scheme to allow Norton to vote on the House floor whenever members convened as the "Committee of the Whole" to consider legislation? The city cheered. People high-fived. We just knew we had something going.

Then we learned that Norton's vote would not count when members convened as the "House of Representatives" to vote for a bill's final passage. We grimaced and said, Well, okay.

Next we were told that Norton's vote would count in the Committee of the Whole, unless it led to a tie, at which time her vote wouldn't count. We sighed and said, "Ugh, well, all right."

What we didn't count on was the day Democrats no longer ruled the House.

It came in the form of the Gingrich revolution. Republicans had about as much sympathy for the District as CIA drones have for al-Qaeda.

Asked to renew the House rule giving Norton a vote in the Committee of the Whole, Republicans reacted as if Timothy McVeigh had asked for beatification.

Norton was left to take to the House floor, and (there's no other word for it) shriek something along the lines of, "Give me back my vote!"

Good theater, but the curtain fell on that act.

The scheme was short-lived and shortsighted. We banked then on the wrong way to achieve what we are entitled to as federally taxed Americans: representation. We have banked on illusions ever since. We've tried to gain representation through the courts and were told we did not have a constitutional right. We tried jury-rigging electoral seats and got gunned down. We dream of statehood, glossing over the economic consequences of that decision.

Let's face it: There's only one way to gain our rightful place in America. It's the same approach taken on behalf of disenfranchised Americans before us: a constitutional amendment.

I hear the groans, but I plow on.

Yes, we traveled down this road before and without success. In 1978, Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given us voting representation in the House and Senate. But the resolution received the approval of only 16 of the 38 states necessary for ratification, and it expired in 1985.

Are prospects any better now? They're pretty bleak.

Can you imagine, in today's political climate, getting the requisite two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress to propose a constitutional amendment? And then getting it approved by the requisite three-fourths of the states?

But then put ourselves in the shoes of the abolitionists and the faithful who labored for the day when slaves could be free to live and ultimately vote as Americans.

Think of August 1920, when the 19th Amendment finally gave women the right to vote, and remember July 1848, when giving women the right to vote was first seriously proposed at the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention.

It took more than 70 years for women. It took a civil war to get blacks to citizenship.

And it will be one monumental battle for Americans in the nation's capital.

It's been reported that Charlotte Woodward was the only participant from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention who was still alive when suffrage arrived, but she was, by then, too ill to cast a ballot.

So it was, too, for those in favor of black emancipation who never lived to see a black man enter the polling place.

So it will probably be for some of us who have yearned all our lives for D.C. seats in the House and Senate.

But what I'm proposing is morally right. And once our rights are in the Constitution, no Congress can take them away.

It will take an unprecedented and broadly based movement of Washingtonians to get this arduous, national effort underway.

We can't give up or look for an easy way. There is none.

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April 24, 2010

Dear Mr. King:

I am amazed that you seem to think that a constitutional amendment is what the people of the District of Columbia need to get their full rights to self-government, including representation in their national legislature.  Why is it that the press in this town is fixated on ignoring the only true way to get all of our rights, which, by the way, is the simplest procedurally (passage of one law, no supermajority required by the Constitution) and the most constitutional - i.e., statehood?  If we put all the money, effort and time that has gone into the dead end of "voting rights" instead into getting statehood, we might actually be there.

Statehood would give us full representation in BOTH houses of Congress and a full, unlimited vote in the Electoral College.  Right now the 23rd amendment limits D.C. to the number of electors of "the least populous State."  In 1964, our first presidential election since 1800, each District voter effectively had only 3/4 of the vote held by any other American since our population at the time would have entitled us to two representatives, but we only got credit for one as there were a number of states with a smaller population that only gave them one representative.

In addition, and in some ways more importantly, statehood would give us state sovereignty and control over all state and local functions on an equal footing with the citizens of all other states.  There many powers reserved for the states and unless Congress explicitly says we have them, we don't.  Statehood is a status, much like marriage. When the law changes, a state automatically gets the rights and privileges that go with the status of statehood.  D.C., however, does not.  As a result, we are always playing catch-up and, as with every other right Congress gives us now as a colony, Congress can take it away tomorrow.  Only with statehood would we truly have our full democratic rights permanently.

We have been colonists of the rest of the states for 210 years, 34 years longer than the 13 colonies existed.  In another 34 years we will have been colonists longer than slavery existed in British North America.  The supreme irony is that people who live in what is now the District of Columbia fought in the Revolutionary War, helped create this country, and then lost all their rights.  I agree with you that it is long past time to get them back and the way to do that is STATEHOOD.


Ann Loikow



With lots of blame to go around on lack of D.C. vote, fresh ideas are needed

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, April 22, 2010; B01

We finally got a baseball team. The Intercounty Connector will open this fall. A rail line to Dulles Airport is under construction. But D.C. voting rights are still on hold.

Why is it that the most legitimate demand is the one that goes unmet?

Among Washington regional issues that never go away, the undisputed champion is getting a full vote in Congress for the District's 600,000 residents.

The latest setback is severe. It's likely to take many more years or even decades to achieve this patently righteous objective.

The voting rights bill withdrawn Tuesday represented the furthest that the cause has advanced since the early 1980s. The next Congress is likely to be less sympathetic, assuming Republicans gain seats as expected in the mid-term election in November.

Given that this seems to be a turning point, I think it's appropriate to provide a (bipartisan) list of the villains who betray America's best-known founding principle of no taxation without representation. I'll also offer my own pet idea about how to break the impasse.

First, though, let me say I believe that House Democrats were right to shelve the bill Tuesday. It would have added two House votes -- one for the District (sure to be Democratic) and one for Utah (equally surely Republican). Good compromise, right? Unfortunately, the legislation was poisoned by an amendment, imposed by gun-rights supporters, that would have eliminated most of the District's gun-control laws.

I had a glimpse Tuesday of why that cost was too high. I was discussing the bill with a half-dozen patrons of the Expert Barber Shop in Southeast when news arrived that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had asked that the bill be withdrawn.

Heads nodded. She did the right thing, the customers said. Giving up gun control could be a good deal if the District were getting two Senate seats as well as a full vote in the House. But the bill on the table, providing just the House seat, didn't offer enough.

"That vote's only going to go so far. The [change in] gun laws is going to be permanent," Shawn Hill, 40, said.

Of course, the District shouldn't have to choose. Here's my roster of who's to blame:

The gun lobby. The No. 1 villain is obviously the National Rifle Association. It's just playing the bully here. It hasn't been able to pass a stand-alone bill to strip away the District's gun-control laws, so it attached the plan to the voting rights bill. That mocks conservatives' supposed respect for local rule.

The GOP. Although many Republicans support D.C. voting rights, the party consistently finds ways to avoid granting them. The party didn't raise the issue when it controlled Congress for 12 years. It's putting politics ahead of principle, partly because it wants to avoid creating a precedent to give the District senators as well.

"This has never been about the Constitution. This is all about adding a Democratic vote to the House. If it were a Republican vote, the roles would be reversed," said former Fairfax congressman Tom Davis, who's an exception to the pattern. He's a Republican who took the lead on pushing for voting rights when he was in the House.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The Senate majority leader gave the NRA a huge win early last year when he voted to add a gun amendment to his chamber's version of the bill. Reid's vote provided cover for other moderate Democrats to do the same. In retrospect, that vote might have been the decisive moment in ensuring the bill's eventual defeat.

President Obama. The president's support for D.C. voting rights has been tepid at best. He has yet to mention it in a State of the Union address and has not used his position or rhetorical gifts to push the issue. He appears to view it as a local matter that isn't worth his time or political capital.

Apathetic D.C. residents. A shortage of visible activism hampers the cause. Although volunteers lobbied swing congressmen, we haven't seen a high-profile demonstration since about 5,000 vote supporters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue three years ago.

There hasn't really been a grass-roots uprising on this. Where were the D.C. residents, you know, marching on the Capitol grounds?" said a Democratic congressional staff member who supports the cause but spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize it.

Here's my proposal. It has two parts. First, give the District "two Senate seats, as well as the House seat. Second, give California two extra Senate seats. This could be done by splitting it into two states or amending the Constitution.

California is by far the biggest state, so its population deserves an extra pair of senators anyway.

Also, it would be easy to draw a border so the two new senators were elected from Southern California. They would probably be Republicans, whereas northern California voters would select Democrats.

Because California has two Democratic senators, the net result would be to add two Republicans to the Senate. They would offset the two Democrats presumably elected by the District.

Far-fetched? Absolutely. But this movement needs fresh ideas. When I ran it by Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, he instantly pronounced it "fascinating" and said his group will "certainly" consider it along with other "creative proposals." At this point, he's got to be open to anything.



Where were you on D.C. voting rights, Mr. President?

By Mark Plotkin
Sunday, April 25, 2010; C05

There's always next year.

Probably not.

I'm talking about the D.C. voting rights bill.

Last week, once again, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) told House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to pull the bill.

There is no greater champion than Hoyer for the right of D.C. residents to become active members of our nation's democracy. He rightly considers the denial of a House vote to the residents of our nation's capital to be a violation of international human rights as set out in the Helsinki Accords.

But once again, the National Rifle Association carried the day. There were too many House and Senate members petrified of the consequences of saying no to the NRA. The bill couldn't go forward because the Senate's version, passed in February 2009, was laden with pro-gun amendments that were poison to local officials.

Many people -- I was among them -- urged Norton last year to accept the awful Senate gun amendments rather than try to move the bill in an election year. She must have known in her heart of hearts that the NRA was in the driver's seat, that it would not compromise or even negotiate. But she did not heed the advice, and this year the gun amendments got worse.

Norton has taken her lumps, but there is one person who has not been sufficiently been singled out for responsibility: the president of the United States.

I interviewed candidate Barack Obama in the summer of 2008 for WTOP Radio and asked him about the issue. He immediately said that if he won, he would "have a lot on his plate." He reiterated his support for the bill, but it did not take much to curb his enthusiasm for it.

After being elected, he made matters worse. When asked about D.C. voting rights in a meeting with reporters and editors at The Post, he called the issue "partisan" and "controversial."

What he should have said in no uncertain terms was that this was a fundamental component of democracy -- a statement such as "I can't wait to sign a bill that should remove this blight on democracy."

Then there is the issue of the "taxation without representation" license plate. Bill Clinton put it on the presidential limousine. George W. Bush took it off, and Obama could have immediately restored it to its rightful place. First his aides implied that they knew nothing about the plate. Then they said they were "working on it." Then they told us that the plate was not going on.

The D.C. Council sent a letter asking the president to put the plate on. There's been no response from the White House.

The D.C. Democratic State Committee sent a similar letter. It should have been treated better; Obama carried every D.C. precinct and received 93 percent of the vote. But the response was the same: none. If this wasn't enough, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and council member Jack Evans co-signed a letter inviting the president to the Wilson Building to "celebrate our city's most famous resident -- yourself." This charming missive generated a White House e-mail that can only be described as a form-letter rejection.

This president and his administration have gone out of their way to deliberately shun the city in their beyond-benign neglect of the issue of voting rights. The Obama attitude, although never articulated, can be summed up by this political calculation: We don't need you. The District is in the bag. With 76 percent of the population registered as Democrats in a city that is majority African American, where are you going to go?

Any responsibility to view this as an issue of morality or justice? That's not his department.

Obama made a cold political calculation: Ignore those people. They don't count. And you wonder why the bill went nowhere and why the future looks so bleak. President Obama won't give the District the time of day.

The writer is the political analyst for WTOP Radio

April 26, 2010

Mark:  Re your query- "Where were you on D.C. voting rights, Mr. President?
While I believe that your reasons for his non-participation are correct, a significant number of D.C. Statehood advocates greatly appreciated his distancing himself from that thoroughly inadequate half measure.
In the unlikely circumstance that it may have passed, we would still have been confined to insulting colonial fiefdom, with the unelected Congressional overlords dictating to the citizens of the national capital of the leading democracy in the western world.This happens in no other democratic nation. What Congressional leadership!
What logical excuse is there for this travesty?
In case you haven't noticed, there is a promising new movement toward organizing this community for a determined thrust toward statehood, so that we can justify our proclaimed democratic world leadership.
And when democracy finally finds its way into the D.C. government, the obstructionists will be just as embarrassed regarding the fact of two hundred years of colonial domination in our national capital as they are now over any reference to two hundred years of human bondage in this bastion of democracy.
I encourage you follow your commendable history, focusing on the rights of the citizens.  That will certainly contribute importantly to the elimination of the current stain on American democracy in the nation's capital.
Charles I. Cassell FAIA
Former President
DC Statehood Constitutional Convention, 1982-1985
Washington Post political cartoonist Tom Toles' take:


By Tom Toles  |  April 25, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign PolicyInternational

Home Opinion D.C. Columnists Weigh In on "Voting Rights" Debacle

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