D.C. Seeks to Fund Lobbying Effort for a Voting House Member

Rep. Jose E. Serrano supports using city funds to lobby for voting rights.
Rep. Jose E. Serrano supports using city funds to lobby for voting rights. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

The D.C. government is planning to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2009 on lobbying for a voting member of the House of Representatives, now that Congress has lifted a ban on such expenditures, officials said.

The D.C. Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on budget legislation for fiscal 2009, which includes $500,000 for outreach, education and lobbying activities related to the D.C. vote campaign. The council gave its nod for the funds earlier, and the vote next week is expected to confirm that.

The longtime ban on using city funds to lobby for greater representation in Congress was lifted nearly a year ago, after Democrats gained control over both houses. But it was too late for the city to include money in its 2008 budget.

President Bush's 2009 budget proposal would restore the prohibition against using the money. But Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the D.C. budget, indicated that he would block the president's effort.

"Last year I removed the prohibition on using local funds for a D.C. vote campaign, and I plan to continue that policy with this year's bill," Serrano said in a statement.

A bill granting the District its first voting House member passed that body last year but was blocked in the Senate. Supporters are hoping it will be brought up again in the Senate before year's end. Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it is passed.

Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's nonvoting House delegate, said the D.C. lobbying money will come at a crucial moment. "We are just so delighted that it is in the budget," she said. "It comes in the nick of time."

The $500,000 in city funds will go to DC Vote, an advocacy group that has been promoting the bill.

The group has received half-million dollar grants from the city twice before, in 2006 and last year, but those were limited to public education about the voting rights issue. Executive Director Ilir Zherka said DC Vote will be able to do more overtly political campaigns. For example, it will be able to promote the D.C. vote legislation, instead of simply describing the District's status. The advocates will also be able to give out sample letters to legislators and mention lawmakers' names in advertising.

"What will be different this time around is we'll say: 'Take action. Call senator so-and-so,' " Zherka said. "That's a subtle difference, but it's a significant one."

Supporters of the bill already lobby Congress. Such national organizations as the League of Women Voters and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights have pressed the issue, as have pro bono lobbyists from firms including Patton Boggs, Zherka said.

"There's certainly direct lobbying and intelligence-gathering that has been taking place over the last year or two. That will continue," Zherka said.

DC Vote advocates have traveled in recent months to Montana, Oregon and New Hampshire to step up pressure on senators who joined a filibuster on the bill in September. The D.C. vote bill fell three votes short of the number needed to be considered by the Senate at that point.

The bill would expand the House by two seats: one for the District and the other for the next state in line to pick up a seat based on population. That second seat would go to Republican-leaning Utah for at least the next few years, probably offsetting the addition of a representative from the heavily Democratic District.

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