With lots of blame to go around on lack of D.C. vote, fresh ideas are needed

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, April 22, 2010; B01

We finally got a baseball team. The Intercounty Connector will open this fall. A rail line to Dulles Airport is under construction. But D.C. voting rights are still on hold.

Why is it that the most legitimate demand is the one that goes unmet?

Among Washington regional issues that never go away, the undisputed champion is getting a full vote in Congress for the District's 600,000 residents.

The latest setback is severe. It's likely to take many more years or even decades to achieve this patently righteous objective.

The voting rights bill withdrawn Tuesday represented the furthest that the cause has advanced since the early 1980s. The next Congress is likely to be less sympathetic, assuming Republicans gain seats as expected in the mid-term election in November.

Given that this seems to be a turning point, I think it's appropriate to provide a (bipartisan) list of the villains who betray America's best-known founding principle of no taxation without representation. I'll also offer my own pet idea about how to break the impasse.

First, though, let me say I believe that House Democrats were right to shelve the bill Tuesday. It would have added two House votes -- one for the District (sure to be Democratic) and one for Utah (equally surely Republican). Good compromise, right? Unfortunately, the legislation was poisoned by an amendment, imposed by gun-rights supporters, that would have eliminated most of the District's gun-control laws.

I had a glimpse Tuesday of why that cost was too high. I was discussing the bill with a half-dozen patrons of the Expert Barber Shop in Southeast when news arrived that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had asked that the bill be withdrawn.

Heads nodded. She did the right thing, the customers said. Giving up gun control could be a good deal if the District were getting two Senate seats as well as a full vote in the House. But the bill on the table, providing just the House seat, didn't offer enough.

"That vote's only going to go so far. The [change in] gun laws is going to be permanent," Shawn Hill, 40, said.

Of course, the District shouldn't have to choose. Here's my roster of who's to blame:

The gun lobby. The No. 1 villain is obviously the National Rifle Association. It's just playing the bully here. It hasn't been able to pass a stand-alone bill to strip away the District's gun-control laws, so it attached the plan to the voting rights bill. That mocks conservatives' supposed respect for local rule.

The GOP. Although many Republicans support D.C. voting rights, the party consistently finds ways to avoid granting them. The party didn't raise the issue when it controlled Congress for 12 years. It's putting politics ahead of principle, partly because it wants to avoid creating a precedent to give the District senators as well.

"This has never been about the Constitution. This is all about adding a Democratic vote to the House. If it were a Republican vote, the roles would be reversed," said former Fairfax congressman Tom Davis, who's an exception to the pattern. He's a Republican who took the lead on pushing for voting rights when he was in the House.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The Senate majority leader gave the NRA a huge win early last year when he voted to add a gun amendment to his chamber's version of the bill. Reid's vote provided cover for other moderate Democrats to do the same. In retrospect, that vote might have been the decisive moment in ensuring the bill's eventual defeat.

President Obama. The president's support for D.C. voting rights has been tepid at best. He has yet to mention it in a State of the Union address and has not used his position or rhetorical gifts to push the issue. He appears to view it as a local matter that isn't worth his time or political capital.

Apathetic D.C. residents. A shortage of visible activism hampers the cause. Although volunteers lobbied swing congressmen, we haven't seen a high-profile demonstration since about 5,000 vote supporters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue three years ago.

"There hasn't really been a grass-roots uprising on this. Where were the D.C. residents, you know, marching on the Capitol grounds?" said a Democratic congressional staff member who supports the cause but spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize it.

Here's my proposal. It has two parts. First, give the District two Senate seats, as well as the House seat. Second, give California two extra Senate seats. This could be done by splitting it into two states or amending the Constitution.

California is by far the biggest state, so its population deserves an extra pair of senators anyway.

Also, it would be easy to draw a border so the two new senators were elected from Southern California. They would probably be Republicans, whereas northern California voters would select Democrats.

Because California has two Democratic senators, the net result would be to add two Republicans to the Senate. They would offset the two Democrats presumably elected by the District.

Far-fetched? Absolutely. But this movement needs fresh ideas. When I ran it by Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, he instantly pronounced it "fascinating" and said his group will "certainly" consider it along with other "creative proposals." At this point, he's got to be open to anything.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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