DC on Verge of Getting a Vote in the US House
February 26, 2009 - 4:00 PMThey live in the shadow of the Capitol dome, but District of Columbia residents have never had what Americans in all 50 states do: A voting member of Congress.
Resentment over their long exclusion could soon fade as Congress moves closer to giving D.C. its first full seat in the House. The bill, which a sympathetic President Barack Obama has said he will sign into law, puts the city of 600,000 on the cusp of historic change - if it survives a court challenge.
"Having the vote, having representation, legitimizes us," LaJuan Young, 39, said as she ate breakfast at the Florida Avenue Grill near historic U Street. "It is a respect thing."
D.C. residents have been fighting for voting rights since 1801, when Congress took control of the newly created capital. It wasn't until 1964 that residents were able to cast presidential ballots, and it took nearly another decade for Congress to pass the Home Rule Act, allowing for the direct election of the mayor and other city officials.
Yet a full vote on Capitol Hill has been elusive. Although the district has elected a representative since the 1970s, that House delegate can only vote in committees.
Hopes for a true spot in the people's chamber soared this week when the Senate agreed to take up the bill that would expand the 435-member House by two seats.
The bill, nearly identical to one senators killed two years ago, would give the district a vote in the House beginning in January 2011. To offset the likely election of a Democrat, the bill also adds a fourth seat for Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed out on an extra spot after the 2000 census.
It helps that D.C. has an ally in Obama, who has expressed an eagerness to be a part of the city and has been quick to visit popular neighborhood hangouts such as Ben's Chili Bowl. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty also was among the first to endorse Obama for president after he came out in support of voting rights.
"In many parts of D.C. you can look down the street and see the Capitol dome, and yet so many of these streets couldn't be more disconnected from our government," Obama said during a 2007 campaign appearance in the district.
The Senate could pass the bill within days if supporters can fend off hostile amendments designed to peel away support. In the House, which approved the bill two years ago, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he expects a floor vote next week.
"We see all lights on go," said a beaming Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting member of Congress who will have the right to vote if she wins re-election in 2010. "There can't be no turning back now."
The momentum for full voting rights has been building for years. In 2000, the city sought to educate the nation about its plight by introducing license plates that proclaimed "Taxation Without Representation."
Even with growing support, some senators and scholars have pointed out that Washington is a city and the U.S. Constitution says the House should consist of members chosen "by the people of the several states."
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley sympathizes with the plight of D.C. residents, but insists the measure is "flagrantly unconstitutional" and ultimately doomed.
"What these (lawmakers) are doing is extremely dangerous and destabilizing for our system of government," Turley said. "They are claiming the right to create a new type of voting member." The bill opens the door for Congress to give the vote to Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, he said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., a co-sponsor of the bill, counters that the district is often treated as a state when it comes to taxation and interstate commerce.
The city has a complicated and often contentious relationship with Congress, which approves its budget.
During a particularly low point for the cash-strapped city in the 1990s, lawmakers stripped then-Mayor Marion Barry and the council of essentially all control over top agencies and appointed a financial control board. "Democracy has been raped," Barry declared then.
For much of the past decade, however, district leaders have worked hard to improve D.C.'s relationship with Congress while also leading the city back to fiscal health, including 12 years of balanced budgets.
"This is a city performing as well or better than any other in America," D.C. Council chairman Vincent Gray said. Full equality, he said, "can't come soon enough."
Becoming a voting member of Congress also will not solve the numerous problems in a city that has some of the worst schools in the country and a high crime rate.
Still, many residents expressed relief that the city finally appeared to be on the verge of getting the vote.
Roman Gabriel said it's difficult for outsiders to understand the depth of frustration.
"There's been a long-standing feeling from residents of D.C. that nobody cares," said Gabriel, 36, who was raised in Washington and just returned after a decade. Having a vote will mean "a real feeling of belonging," he said.
Others were more skeptical.
"I don't trust Congress to do all the right things they should be doing," Douglas Sutcliffe, a sales manager for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, said this week as he took a smoke break on Capitol Hill. "I'm from the Show-me state of Missouri. I'll believe it when I see it."
Sipping coffee at the Big Bear Cafe in D.C.'s Eckington neighborhood, Ted McGinn said it would begin to ease the sense that D.C. residents are second-class citizens.
McGinn said he believes the lack of a vote for the city, which has been majority-black since the 1960s, stems in part from racism. McGinn, who is white, said the attitude from lawmakers seems to have been "We can't trust these people."
Associated Press writer Kamala Lane contributed to this story.
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