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Washington, D.C. Officials Push Congress for Voting Rights

April 16, 2007 at 1:40 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Thousands of Washingtonians, including long-time activist Reverend Graylan Hagler, turned out this afternoon to rally for the right to a full vote in Congress, something residents here have never had.

REV. GRAYLAN HAGLER, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ: It’s a continued, nagging issue for us, because we live, like anybody else, in the United States. We have our homes; we have our neighborhoods; we have our aspirations, our hopes, and our dreams that can be shifted by anybody else. And we don’t have the power or the voice or the vote to begin to hold back the types of political agenda that is often thrust upon us.

KWAME HOLMAN: The federal government, which has governing control over the District of Columbia — D.C., as it’s known — allows the city’s residents to send one delegate to Congress. For the last 17 years, Eleanor Holmes Norton has been that person. She is permitted to vote in committee, but lacks full voting power on the House floor where final legislation is approved.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D), D.C. House Delegate: My constituents want the vote, because on major issues they feel deeply, and they feel denied. They feel denied when they can’t open the paper and find out how their representative voted on x, y, z.

They believe in democracy. They believe that, if I could vote, they could have an effect on issues. And they’re mad that they’re not allowed to have that effect.

KWAME HOLMAN: Norton represents the nearly 600,000 people who make up the district, three-quarters of whose registered voters are Democrats. More than half the population is black.

Despite rising property values and a booming downtown economy in Washington today, Norton, the city council, and several mayors have struggled over the years to deal with crime waves, high unemployment, and poor schools.

A humorous twist on the plight

KWAME HOLMAN: And so the lifelong D.C. resident has used every opportunity to promote the benefits full representation might bring to the city. She's enjoyed some free publicity from Comedy Central talk show host Stephen Colbert, who's put a humorous twist on her plight.

STEPHEN COLBERT, Host, "The Colbert Report": I checked your voting record. You have not voted once while you've been in office. Do you want to defend that?

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, our government is imposing taxes on the residents of the District of Columbia without giving us a vote in the House and the Senate.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Isn't that for states? You're not a state.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: We're not a state. It's in the Constitution.

STEPHEN COLBERT: But it's "We the people of the United States" is what the preamble of the Constitution says. But you're not in the United States. You're in the District of Columbia. Those aren't states.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: It has gotten the message of voting rights and our denial of the same out as nothing else has, because I can always depend on Colbert to make a joke out of the fact that the district doesn't have voting rights.

Securing a congressional vote

KWAME HOLMAN: Washingtonians actually had no voting rights at all until 1964, when a constitutional amendment gave them the right to vote in presidential elections. And it wasn't until 10 years later that the federal government allowed residents to elect a city council and a mayor.

Repeated efforts over the last three decades to secure a full-fledged vote in Congress have failed, disappointing countless local residents.

WASHINGTON RESIDENT: It really feels like we're paying taxes, we're just people that are here, and our voices do not count. It's simple. It's unfair, and our voices should count.

WASHINGTON RESIDENT: This is the nation's capital. We should have the right to vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: But change may be near. Norton and Virginia Republican Tom Davis, whose congressional district lies just a few miles from Washington, have teamed up to push a widely supported bill that would give the district a vote in the House chamber.

REP. TOM DAVIS (R), Virginia: Here in the nation's capital, heart of the free world, they're not even given a vote in Congress. The city's own budget comes before Congress for approval. The city residents don't get final approval on that. And to me, you know, it's disjointed. This is natural.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Norton-Davis bill would balance the new seat for the District of Columbia with an additional seat for heavily Republican Utah. That trade-off was key to securing early bipartisan support for the measure, and the push for congressional representation in Washington has more momentum behind it today than at any time in recent years.

WASHINGTON RESIDENT: I think it's an excellent opportunity for the city, as well as the region. I think it should make some very positive changes in a very short period of time.

KWAME HOLMAN: But there still are many formidable Republican opponents of the Norton-Davis bill, who say granting the city a House vote would be unconstitutional.

CONGRESSMAN: There are constitutional questions on this issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: They cite Article I, Section Two, which says, "The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states."

White House aides cited that constitutional argument last month, when announcing they would recommend a presidential veto of the Norton-Davis bill. Election law expert John Fortier defended that reasoning.

JOHN FORTIER, American Enterprise Institute: Well, the Constitution decides who's represented in Congress and not Congress itself.

Republicans resist a D.C. vote

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Davis questioned the strength of that argument and his opponents' motive for using it.

REP. TOM DAVIS: You have a lot of members who are opposing this saying it's unconstitutional, we need a constitutional amendment. So when you go up and say, well, will you join me then in supporting a constitutional amendment to give the city a right to vote? They say "Oh, no. I won't do that." So it's kind of an excuse as you go.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican critics of the bill see a hidden Democratic agenda. They believe passage of Norton-Davis could lead to a permanently Democratic House seat and set a precedent for eventually giving the district two voting senators, also likely to be Democrats.

So when Norton-Davis came to the floor last month, Republicans derailed the bill by attaching to it language that would overturn the district's strict handgun laws. Lamar Smith of Texas.

REP. LAMAR SMITH (R), Texas: My colleagues on the other side of the aisle have suggested today that District of Columbia citizens have the right to a vote in Congress. If that's the case, then they must also agree that the citizens of the district should have the constitutionally guaranteed right to possess firearms.

KWAME HOLMAN: That maneuver took Democratic leaders by surprise and forced them to pull down the bill. Norton was outraged at the Republican tactics.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I mean, this is not a motion to recommit. It's a motion to shoot the bill dead.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic leaders have pledged to sidestep any GOP attacks when the bill is brought back to the floor later this week. Local Republican leaders, all of whom support D.C. voting rights, hope their party tones down its tactics. Many fear the gun ban ploy, combined with the administration's veto threat, are further souring the GOP's image among the African-American community in Washington and beyond.

Bob Kabel is the city's top Republican official.

ROBERT KABEL, D.C. Republican Committee: Well, I think it's very damaging. I think it will damage urban Republican parties like ours, because I think we'll be one more reason that Democrats and others will say, "You shouldn't be voting Republican if you're an urban dweller."

WASHINGTON RESIDENT: It upsets me. It really does. It really does.

Keeping control in federal hands

KWAME HOLMAN: Many of the city's long-time residents feel that those opposing the Norton-Davis bill are interested only in keeping control of Washington in the federal government's hands.

WASHINGTON RESIDENT: To have Congress oversee our own progress here in the district seems a little micromanagement-style to me. You know, let the district run its own affairs.

KWAME HOLMAN: Norton hopes to bring her constituents a real vote, and she remains cautiously optimistic.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, when they asked Martin Luther King how long, he said, "Not long," and I've got to believe that. Most people thought we would never get this far.

And it's going to be a struggle. That's what living here in the nation's capital has been for 200 years. We never got anything without struggling for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: If the House approves the D.C. vote measure, it still must pass the Senate before going to the president's desk.