D.C voting rights: Where we've been, where we're going

By Eleanor Holmes Norton
Sunday, July 25, 2010

In April, when a new and even more dangerous anti-home-rule gun amendment delayed the D.C. House voting rights bill in the House of Representatives, I told D.C. residents that I would initiate conversations on next steps. It is apparent that we need serious, renewed discussion of how best to secure voting rights and freedom from congressional interference. These "Community Conversations" are beginning. The easy part is agreeing on what we want and what we are entitled to. Not so easy is figuring out how to get where we want to go. Our history can be our guide, but only if we understand this history.

I appreciate the thoughtful suggestions I have received from residents on legislation and strategies. Most of these have already been tried, but memories of the years of effort that residents invested in them have dimmed with the passage of time. In light of the number of good suggestions, however, more than simply reflecting on the past is necessary to promote an informed discussion. Thus, if I am reelected, I will introduce a series of bills in the next Congress that include not only the pending House-only approach but also the other bills that I have put forward in previous years: bills for statehood and for votes in both the Senate and the House. To assist a productive conversation, I also will post on my Web site the constitutional amendment bill carried by my predecessor, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, along with the paths these bills have taken. That bill was passed by Congress in 1978 but won approval from just 16 of the 38 states required for ratification.

Shortly after coming to Congress, I introduced and got to the House floor my favorite bill -- the New Columbia Admission Act -- which would have made the District the 51st state, providing the entire package of full and equal representation and freedom from congressional intervention. In the House, we managed to get almost 60 percent of the Democrats and one Republican to vote for statehood. Even though the House and Senate were both controlled by huge, progressive Democratic majorities, however, the bill did not pass the House, and the Senate refused to take it up. Soon thereafter, the District became insolvent, taking statehood off the table until the city shows that it meets the threshold requirement of ability to pay for all state functions.

Recently, in response to a question on "The Politics Program with Mark Plotkin," D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said that statehood would require approximately $1.2 billion in annual costs currently carried by the federal government. I will shortly release a summary of the 1997 memorandum of understanding between the District and the federal government in which the federal government, at the District's request, agreed to fund some D.C. operations. This decision made by the mayor and the D.C. Council to rescue the city from insolvency was understandable. But it was the city's decision, not mine, that took statehood off the table.

With statehood delayed, we pushed back with the next best option: a bill for votes in the House and Senate. This bill attracted many co-sponsors in both houses but did not reach the floor of either house. Later, in 2005, then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who along with many Democrats supported granting D.C. a vote in the House but not in the Senate, noted that Utah had narrowly lost out on a seat after the 2000 Census, and he partnered with me to introduce a bipartisan bill giving House votes to Democratic D.C. and Republican Utah. For the first time in decades, we achieved large House and Senate majorities, bringing us the closest we have come to voting representation in more than two centuries.

Then came the gun amendment, which would have eliminated the District's gun safety laws and proliferated gun throughout the city, compelling us to pull back. As we move forward, it is important to remember that today all approaches would need to overcome the gun provision, even statehood; gun proponents would oppose a statehood bill altogether because the District would enact strong gun safety laws. Such impediments do not keep statehood from being the preferred choice. But they do require deeper thinking about whether there are ways to get there other than the incremental steps that we moved to after city finances delayed statehood and congressional Democrats became more conservative.

Our struggle for equal citizenship rights has been characterized by setbacks and comebacks, but the progress we have made can point the way forward. Our history shows agreement on two principles: We must never retreat from our full citizenship rights, and we must always seize any part of our rights that we can get.

The writer is the D.C. delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

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