Transcript

A House Seat for D.C.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton
District Congressional Delegate
Monday, March 26, 2007; 11:45 AM

Last week, House Democrats postponed a vote on a bill to give D.C. a congressional representative, in order to avoid a move to tie the bill to a repeal of the city's gun restrictions.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's congressional delegate and one of the bill's sponsors, was online Monday, March 26 at 11:45 a.m. ET to take your questions about the current state of the bill that would give D.C. its first full seat in the House of Representatives.

A transcript follows.

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Eleanor Holmes Norton: I'm grateful for all the support we've gotten on the D.C. House Voting Rights Act of 2007, esp. since the Republican maneuver of last week, I want to assure everybody that we were honored by all the appropriate parliamentary experts the next day, and we have a number of different ways to knock this bill off the mischief of those who would deny the people who pay taxes and fight in this nations wars a basic right in "the People's house."

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Rockville, Md.: Why does Bush want to veto the bill to give Washingtonians a voting seat in Congress? The concern about constitutionality is just another Bush lie. What do people on his side tell you is the real reason? It can't be parity, since the Utah Republican seat would offset Washington's seat.

Eleanor Holmes Norton: I appreciate this well-informed question, I spoke personally with the president a few weeks ago when I was at a White House meeting on another subject. I warned him that I believed there would be some who would advise him that our voting rights bill was unconstitutional. I told him that we had done our homework, and that constitutional experts whom I believe he respects, had offered detailed testimony at hearings that the bill is indeed constitutional. When I told him their names, former court of appeals judge Kenneth Starr and Viet Dihn, who worked in the Ashcroft Justice Dept., he looked at me and said "Wow, I'll take a look at it." When the administration said his advisers would recommend a veto, I was not surprised. He has not himself said he would veto a bill for voting rights for his own capital, while troops from DC are on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope he will exercise his own judgment. I talked to a very highly ranked White House official and said "Of course on a controversial bill like this, there is a difference in constitutional opinion, but we feel like we are on the right side of this."

When all is said and done, members of Congress will be held responsible for their own judgment, not about constitutionality, that's for a third branch of government, but whether 650,000 people will have representation, not in both houses, but in the House of Representatives.

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Alexandria, Va.: Have you thought about similar Congressional voting representation measure for other U.S. territories and protectorates (Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, etc...)? If D.C. is granted a vote in Congress, shouldn't all of the other American territories be given the same privilege?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: No, and they have not. The reason they have not, is because, unlike District residents, the residents of the four territories do not pay federal income taxes, so the bargain struck with them is not patently unfair. They have never sought representation in the House and Senate, I think because they do not want to pay taxes. We are outraged that we have to meet all the obligations of people who live in the states, including, second among the 50 states in federal income taxes, and, like the territories, have the very same representation to Congress. We wish them well, but the District clause treats the District of Columbia entirely differently than the four territories. None of whom have anything close to the population numbers that are necessary to form a congressional district.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Doesn't the potential passage of this bill into law hurt any chances Washington, D.C., has of becoming a state?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: It does not. There's nothing in this bill that would presage or preclude any other status. After all, the District had no home rule, whatsoever, until 1974. It accepted a mayor and city council, but the home rule is still incomplete. Things happen in stages. DC doesn't qualify to be a state at this time, because the federal government picks up a small amount of its state functions, not all of them, some of them, but we surely qualify by our service in the armed forces, since the birth of the republic, and our payment of federal income taxes, for a vote in the House of Representatives.

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Washington, D.C.: Del. Holmes Norton,

What can we do to make Congress see the moral imperative of a vote for those of us here in D.C.? Obviously, Constitutional arguments one way or the other are simply bringing us to a standstill.

Eleanor Holmes Norton: The most frustrating thing about being in Congress is how deeply moral issues are brushed aside for political reasons. I have seen how we have built support throughout the country for a House vote, on a moral basis. I think the time is particularly right to keep pressing, and to see success, in a world that is looking closely at the United States to see if we practice what we preach. What we preach is that we invaded Iraq in order to bring democracy. It is very hard to wage a war for democracy, while denying democracy to your own capital, without losing standing and clout in the world. So the moral issue is very important here.

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Alexandria, Va.: I saw both of your appearances on the Colbert show. You were awesome!

Do you think that Congress would consider making D.C. residents exempt from federal taxes?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Thank you for Colbert. One thing about Colbert, who keeps coming back for more, is that he gives me an opportunity to keep spreading the word, which is little known in the United States, that we don't have voting rights. Eight-two percent of the American people think we should have votes in the House and the Senate. That's one of the reasons the House vote should be minimally obligatory. Frustratingly, more than 70 percent think we already have representation in both the House and the Senate.

Astutely, you asked about income taxes -- one year I did file a bill to relieve us of all federal income taxes, just like the four territories. They were unwilling to give up the $3 billion annually they get from District of Columbia taxpayers. They want our money without the minimal reciprocity of a vote.

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D.C.: If the "best" way to get a vote is through constitutional amendment, when is the last time that was attempted? I think a push for an amendment coupled with a "major" public awareness campaign supported by people who have every move publicized and scrutinized (talking to you Hillary and Barack) would stand a better chance than the current approach.

Or is an amendment so dead in the water it's not even worth bringing up?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Good question, been there, done that. When the Dems controlled both houses overwhelmingly in the 1970s, the District got a voting-rights amendment through the House and the Senate. However it takes 3/4s of the state legislatures, and it did not get close to getting 3/4s, that's an almost impossible battle.

I myself am a constitutional lawyer, and I consulted constitutional lawyers far more learned than I, and I'm convinced our bill is constitutional. For that reason, when the Utah possibility arose through the creative thinking of a Republican colleague, Rep. Tom Davis, I believed that this approach is the only viable approach at this time.

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Manassas, VA: What would you say to DC residents if this bill were to become law but be overturned in court as unconstitutional?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: When you've gone 206 years without the vote you deserve, and have had the Congress interfere with your self-government in horrendously intrusive and discriminatory ways, you're used to getting up, bouncing back, and finding another way to get it down. What seemed impossible in ways tried before can become possible as events make things right. The District got home rule on the heels of the civil rights movement, for example.

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Washington, D.C.: Although statehood and representation might be out of the question for a while given the President's opposition, is there any chance that a Democratic Congress might push for a commuter tax for D.C., or, better ,a congestion fee for people driving into the city, since the President, both as executive and as chief Republican, has given his approval to such a proposal in his State of the Union? Surely such a proposal could make it through Congress. Would you support such a proposal, supposing revenues went toward public transit concerns?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: No chance for a commuter tax or a tax on entrance and exit to the city. That would be blocked by the votes, first and foremost of the region, and, I'm afraid with a lot of others joining in with them.

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Washington, D.C.: Congresswoman Norton,

Do you think that your Republican colleagues, with the exception of Tom Davis, are serious about constitutional concerns, or are they just opposing D.C. voting rights because of cynical partisanship?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Well, first of all, it should be known that Rep. Davis is not the only Republican that is for this bill. It was interesting to see Rep. Mike Pence, the leader of the most conservative caucus, rise on the floor and speak for us and write in Human Events in support of us.

For most of my unlearned colleagues, who are hardly experts on the Constitution, the constitutional issue is the last refuge for hard-right Republicans, who led their party down and out of the majority. They have never been, not since the early 20th century, have they observed the proud tradition of the Republican Party as the party of rights.

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Chicago: Thank you for taking my question. Prior to the creation of the District of Columbia, residents of that area were presumably represented by the Congressional delegations of Maryland and Virginia (the Virginia portion of DC having already been returned, much to the congressional benefit of the residents of Arlington). Therefore, the creation of D.C. robbed those residents of their right to equal representation. Historically speaking, do you know what the justification for this was and whether those residents raised any objections to having their political representation in Congress taken away?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: This writer has indicated what the strongest argument for DC voting rights is -- surely it is clear that the three signers from Maryland and the three from Virginia would not have signed away the rights of the citizens of their own states when they signed Constitution. The District Clause creating the district from Maryland and Virginia is in the Constitution. The first Congress guaranteed, in one of its first laws, there would not be changes and they would provide for the new residents thereafter. The framers who fought a war in order to achieve representation would not have asked, and surely Maryland and Virginia would not have given the land, without assuring the rights of their own residents. The broken promise lies not with the framers but with the Congress, for two centuries now. And by the way, there were thousands of people living here, with the right to vote in Congress, during the 10-year transition period, until the land became entirely federal. Many of them were veterans of the Revolutionary War, fought, in part, to relieve the colonies of taxation without representation.

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Arlington, Va.: Delegate Norton:

Two of the most vociferous opponents of giving representation to D.C. are from Texas. One tried to sabotage the process by adding an amendment that would repeal all D.C. gun laws, another opined that D.C. has 535 representatives and apparently doesn't need one that's actually accountable to voters. The state of Texas has never been on the forefront of racial justice. How much of the resistance to a vote for D.C. has to do with the fact that a majority of the district's population is African-American?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Well, first let me thank the many residents who e-mailed the member who claimed to represent the District of Columbia.

Race has always played a part, particularly when Democrats controlled the Congress. Southern Democrats were responsible for how late the District got home rule. Today, the strongly Democratic constituency of the city is a proxy for race, in the minds of some. Bear in mind though, for 150 years, the District's population was majority white. The point here seemed to be not to enfranchise a city that had a sizable number of blacks, even if it was not a majority black city. To their everlasting credit, the radical Republicans after the Civil War, granted DC home rule and a delegate. The racial content of this fight is demonstrated, in part, that with Reconstruction came the end of home rule and the first delegate, as well.

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Washington, D.C.: What do gun laws have to do with voting rights? Am I lost here, or is this a last ditch effort to delay the inevitable?

What are the chances of this passing the Senate, and what other "pork" will they tack onto this measure that the President would use to support a veto?

Eleanor Holmes Norton: You're not lost -- but they are. They're lost somewhere in the 19th century. It is inevitable, at least here in the House. The chances in the Senate should be good, if the Senate follows its historic traditions. When a bill affects only one state, no funds are involved, the tradition of the Senate is to defer to the senators from that state. Utah Sens. Hatch and Bennett are for the bill, because they are under the same pressure I am -- Utah residents believe they were due the vote under the last census; so strongly they sued all the way to the Supreme Court. We've heard murmurings from senators about constitutionality, particularly since the president's announcement. But as momentum builds here, lets see if they'll use the same excuses, that the gun-repeal maneuver exposed.

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Washington, D.C.: Lets play devil's advocate -- What good does it do D.C. to get an additional vote when the vote for Utah would effectively neutralize D.C.'s? What was the basis for the additional vote in Utah? I understand concessions, but it seems like folks were more willing to settle for a token versus the coin they are due.

Eleanor Holmes Norton: We weren't looking for balance. We we're looking for parity -- Congress has never increased representation without political balance. Balance should not be needed to grant the vote, but this is a country that yearned for the rich territories beyond the Mississippi, but was unwilling to admit them to the Union, except on a parity basis. In the 19th century, that meant no free state without a slave state. In the 20th century, the parity has been entirely political -- witness the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the union.

I appreciate these very thoughtful questions, that show that Americans have been following this debate. They have been serious and probing questions. I am buoyed that we have gotten this far. I am very encouraged by the support we are getting from around the country. I want to ask everyone, if you have not already done so, to e-mail or phone both your representative and your two senators, whoever they are, whatever their party, and tell them you will be looking to see them cast a vote for HR 1433, the DC House Voting Rights Act of 2007. That way you will have done your part to promote democracy in your country. With sincere gratitude from me and residents who do not have a representative they can contact to vote on any of the matters of huge importance to our country. For the time being, you will have to be our proxies, and if so, you have my personal thanks.

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