D.C. Voting Rights and School Vouchers Under Attack on the Hill

Friday, March 6, 2009

DISTRICT of Columbia residents thought last year's elections would help them win the rights they deserve as U.S. citizens. Not only did the incoming president support D.C. rights, but bigger Democratic majorities in Congress would mean more allies for their cause. That optimism was misplaced. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have not hesitated -- witness efforts to gut city gun laws and kill school vouchers -- to play politics with the lives of those who make this city their home.

The sad reality of the District's second-class status was underscored this week in separate actions on the Hill. Long-awaited legislation that would give the District a voting member of Congress stalled in the House as leaders tried to figure out ways to insulate it from an amendment undermining the city's authority to regulate guns. Meanwhile, the Senate was preparing to deliver what it hoped would be the death blow to a program that affords low-income students a chance at a better education by giving them vouchers to attend private schools.

In neither case were the interests, much less the wishes, of D.C. officials or residents considered or even solicited. Instead, lawmakers were more interested (in the case of D.C. voting rights) in trying to curry favor with the gun lobby and (in the matter of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program) with teachers unions and others ideologically opposed to vouchers. It is scary how blithely 62 senators, including 22 Democrats, signed on to broad changes in gun legislation affecting the nation's capital. Even if they don't care a whit about the wishes or safety of city residents, you would think they might want to know what the Secret Service thinks about repealing the ban on .50-caliber sniper rifles able to pierce armor plating up to a mile away. Those clamoring to kill off vouchers wouldn't be distracted by the common sense or decency of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's position; he raised the obvious question of why anyone would want to force children out of schools where they are happy, safe and satisfied.

Both parties are guilty of a disregard for the District. With few but notable exceptions, Republicans have fought the District's efforts for voting rights; the gun amendment offered by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is but the latest sabotage. Democrats such as Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) have been similarly relentless in their fight against a program that offers some 1,700 poor children the choice to escape failing schools, a choice that members of Congress take for granted. We admire the leadership of House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) in pushing D.C. voting rights; too bad that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is less gutsy. Not only did Mr. Reid not try to dissuade his colleagues from voting for the objectionable gun amendment, his vote in support likely gave the green light for others to follow suit.

President Obama has made it clear that he has priorities more important than D.C. voting rights. We understand that. But could he spare a few minutes to help empower and enfranchise 600,000 people who live in America's capital city?

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