Representation for D.C.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ENOUGH. That, thankfully, was the powerful message from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) at yesterday's hearing on D.C. voting rights. He is not only correct about the intolerable injustice of American citizens being denied representation in their government but also that the debate has gone on for far too long. So it is welcome to hear his resolve to bring a voting rights bill to a quick vote -- a move that one hopes will spur similar action by the Senate.

Mr. Hoyer was, at his insistence, among the witnesses who testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee considering legislation to give the District a voting representative in the House. Similar legislation, which like the current bill would also have added a seat in Utah, passed the House last year but was blocked in the Senate when it failed to get the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. This time, the greater number of Democrats in both chambers has improved the bill's prospects -- as does the support of President Obama.

The unusual appearance of the majority leader as a witness at a hearing was a rebuke to suggestions that Congress shouldn't rush to consider this measure, that it has more important matters on its agenda. No one at yesterday's hearing -- even those who vehemently oppose the bill -- could argue it's okay for the hundreds of thousands of Americans living in the nation's capital to be taxed, sent to war and governed without any real say in what their government does. That point was underscored by both the eloquence of the testimony from a decorated D.C. Iraq war veteran and the far-fetched suggestion by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) that the problem be addressed by excusing District residents from paying federal taxes.

Much of yesterday's discussion came down to the now familiar back-and-forth over whether the measure is constitutional. There are valid legal arguments for and against, with noted scholars on both sides, but the question is best left to the courts to decide. The use of such concerns to block the bill is a ruse by those who lack the political will to enfranchise D.C. residents. At this stage, as Mr. Hoyer argues, the case should be made on principle, not technicalities: "If you oppose this bill, you need to tell us: Just what does our country gain by treating the people of Washington, D.C., differently from America's other 300 million?"

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