Time to Keep the Founders' Promise in D.C.

D.C. voting rights supporters held a rally on Capitol Hill in July.
D.C. voting rights supporters held a rally on Capitol Hill in July. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Steny Hoyer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Two and a quarter centuries ago, before the Capitol had even been imagined, the Founders were asking a question we still hear in the District to this day. How could they cut out a city from its home state and put it under the direct rule of Congress without violating the principles they had just fought a war to secure?

Writing Federalist Paper No. 43, James Madison argued that there was only one way around the hypocrisy -- only one way to make a stateless capital city legitimate. The government, Madison wrote, "will no doubt provide . . . for the rights and the consent of the citizens inhabiting it." And further, its people "will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them."

That was the intent of the Founders. Those were the conditions for this District to exist. And the confidence in Madison's words makes clear that he thought those conditions would soon be met.

Two and a quarter centuries later, they still have not been. I won't speculate why Congress felt within its rights to treat the people of the District like subjects, year after year, as barrier after barrier to the vote fell. But every year, the people of the District have wondered when their time would come, and until it does, they are standing as living challenges to the democratic ideals we voice in this city so often with such certainty. Of all of the world's democracies, there is only one national capital without full voting rights: this city full of monuments to democracy.

At last, that's on the verge of changing. Soon, Congress will debate a bill to give the District of Columbia a voting member of the House of Representatives.

I understand that there are legal arguments for and against using legislation to give Washington, D.C., a vote in the House. Both sides can appeal to the Founders' intent. Both sides can cite the Constitution. Opponents point to this clause: "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen . . . by the People of the several States." In reality, though, the people of this city are the successors to "the People of the several states" -- citizens of my home state, Maryland, who were stripped of their voting rights.

Moreover, the Constitution states that, "the Congress shall have Power . . . to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over [the] District." For supporters of D.C. voting rights, that latter clause gives Congress the power to establish those rights by statute, and the case is bolstered by the numerous times that the District is treated like a state in federal law. A number of conservative legal scholars, from Kenneth Starr to Viet Dinh, assistant attorney general under George W. Bush, agree that we can respect D.C. voting rights and the Constitution's text at the same time.

I can't predict how the legal system will sort out these arguments. But that's why our system embodies a division of labor between the courts and the Congress. Right now, it's our job to stake our case on principle. Opponents of D.C. voting rights need to make a principled case for excluding nearly 600,000 fellow citizens from full participation in government. They need to tell us exactly what we gain by treating them differently from every other American.

And proponents of a vote need to emphasize just how inherent representation is to citizenship. The vote is our most potent symbol of equality and dignity. With a vote, you're part of our national community; without one, you're something other, and something less. I want the men, women and children of this city to walk down the Mall and know that they own it, as much as any tourist off any bus. But as long as nearly 600,000 of us remain stripped of equal representation, our entire democracy is weakened.

The writer is the House majority leader.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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