Monday, Aug. 6, 10 a.m. ET
The Local Delegation: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.)
Monday, August 6, 2007; 10:00 AM
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Delegate to Congress for the District of Columbia, was online Monday, Aug. 6, 10 a.m. ET to take your questions about Congress's recently ended session and issues affecting D.C.
A transcript follows.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has been the District's representative to Congress since 1990. Prior to her election she was the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she continues to be a tenured law professor at Georgetown University. She leads the fight in Congress to get full voting rights for District of Columbia residents.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: This was a seminal year for Congress -- it will be remembered for many things. It was such an earth-shaking year for the new majority, that under normal circumstances, the District's issues would have been one-upped by national matters, but the new majority in fact provided a new opportunity to take advantage of members of congress that support voting rights for the district and home rule. That's what we got under way in a big way in the 110th Congress. I'll be happy to talk about the national events and the domestic priorities that got under way in the last few weeks. These were priorities that had been submerged in the last few years by the Iraq War, and by the tax cuts that went mostly to rich Americans and corporations.
Mt.. Lebanon, PA: Have any of the GOPers (Republican president wannabees) publicly and forcefully declared for full representation in Congress (both houses) for residents of the District?
If so, who? And how do you know it's not just election season throw-away?
If none, that's about the size of it, isn't it, so far as national Republican "leaders" are concerned.
Thanks much. Dennis Kucinich supporter
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: We have yet to hear a Republican running for President support D.C. voting rights. Republicans appear to be on the other side of the most basic of rights in a democracy, at a time when D.C. residents are on the ground in Iraq, fighting for that right for Iraqis and others around the world. National and local civil rights leaders have adopted a theme -- we don't filibuster civil rights bills in this country anymore. That theme emerged because we already have 58 bills for the vote in the congress, 2 votes short of defeating a filibuster. National civil rights leaders will use the month of Aug. to get Republican presidential candidates on record, as the Dems are on the record. There are important Republicans who have supported the bill. The bill got out of committee 9-1, with three Republicans supporting, including Sen. Collins of Maine, the ranking member with jurisdiction. You would think Republicans would want to step up, because this bill started with a Republican. When I was in the minority, that rep. was Rep. Tom Davis of Va. In the House, 21 Republicans supported the bill. Mike Pence of Indiana not only supported the bill, but wrote an article in the conservative journal Human Event that it was impossible to think the founders of our country would leave the residents of a great American city without their rights, and it was up to Congress to fulfill the framers' intentions. We're looking forward to passage of the bill after the recess.
This is a D.C.-Utah bill, I should add. It makes it completely and totally politically balanced, because Utah, the most Republican state in the Union gets a new seat, as well as D.C. To its credit, the senior senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, has led the the fight in the Senate. The District, of course, has no Senators. So I'm encouraged with Republican support in the Senate, and believe there will be more.
Arlington, Va.: I've been a loyal Democrat my whole life. But this complete and utter capitulation to Bush on his destruction of the Constitution is the final straw. I give up on you people. I think there's a lot of outrage out here among rank and file Democrats that the Congress that was elected to be a check on Bush has become his rubber stamp on the most important issues of the day just so they can go on vacation for a month. Tell the leadership we are fed up!
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: Unfortunately, I can't vote on final passage of a bill, though I can vote on the House floor on amendments, and there were no amendments here. If you follow the debate, most Democrats spoke against the FISA bill, which they then passed in the closing hours of the session. They did so, candidly, because the Senate had left for recess. This was a "take it or leave it" bill. The bill contained a provision authorizing essentially a new bill within 6 months. I believe the Democrats voted for this interim bill did so because they did not want to go home and have the new Democrats, many of whom are from Republican districts -- and that's how we got the majority -- go home and be demagogued about exposing the country to terrorism. This is the kind of tight situation Democrats are in, because of the diversity of our party. The new Democrats bit into conservative territory, and are particularly vulnerable in their first term. I ask everyone to bear with the Democrats. This has been the most diverse party since FDR. I'm an African American, and we converted to the Democratic Party during the New Deal, when the party was run racist Democrats up and down the line, who controlled each and every committee, and continuously filibustered bills for such basic rights as the right not to be lynched! But blacks had the good sense to see there were two choices here -- and particularly on bottom-line choices, of what direction the country and world should be going, there was simply no contest. Meanwhile, black Americans worked and converted our party from one controlled by segregationists to the party of civil rights. My point is to work within the party to achieve one's goals, such as the goal I think questioner submitted.
Washington, DC: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton,
Just how close are we to getting a vote in Congress?
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: We're so close to getting a vote in Congress, D.C., that I can feel it and smell. With only 2 votes short of defeating a filibuster, I think we're almost there. Orrin Hatch thinks that if it passes, the president will sign it, even with his advisers recommending he veto the bill. How will this president look vetoing a bill for voting rights for D.C. residents, some of whom are fighting for their country at this moment. It's an untenable situation for him. He's unpopular enough around the world now, at the very least, he can simply let the bill become law without his signature, rather than veto it. We can't assume veto, we have to make veto impossible because of public opinion. A recent WaPo poll showed almost 2/3 of Americans favor this bill at this time. So what's to be against, and who is the President satisfying if he were to veto the bill.
Some say his advisers say the bill is unconstitutional. Two who testified for it included Viet Dihn, the president's own point man on constitutional issues under Ashcroft, and former court of appeals judge Kenneth Starr. Both testified personally that the bill is constitutional.
Hillcrest, D.C.: Delegate Norton:
Once again, another session of Congress ends and D.C. still doesn't have a vote. Why should we have any hope that certain members of Congress will allow a black majority city to have equal representation in Congress? Does anyone really think that race has nothing to do with this?
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: Traditionally, race has had everything to do with it, but since the House has passed the bill, and the Senate is close to passing it, we should not doubt our ability to overcome racial issues. We've already done so in the House, and come close to in the Senate. For 150 years, race played a major part in denying the district both home rule, and the vote, and Senators and members of congress were explicit about the subject of race. The District didn't get home rule until 1974, when the passing of the Civil Rights Act encouraged African-Americans to vote out the chairman of the D.C. Committee, from South Carolina. He was replaced by a black Congressman, Charles Diggs from Detroit.
The District did not have a black majority until almost 1960, but the fact that it had a large number of blacks was enough of to make southern Dems block home rule and voting rights until the early '70s. So we did overcome race, and today the more important factor is less race than our political makeup, as a Democratic city. We're also making historic strides on more home rule, because we're out of a subcommittee, and we're on our way to getting in the house freedom from the budget committee of the Congress, and the need to send our laws to Congress before they become final.
Budget and legislative autonomy from the Congress are the most important freedoms, besides voting rights, the District could have, and we are close to getting those despite the fact we are a 60-percent black city. We can't let negative thinking about race or any other factor stand in the way of insisting that we in the district get our full and equal rights.
Washington, D.C.: If you are not given an official floor vote (yet), how exactly do you use your position of political office for influence?
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: That's a very good question -- actually I have an official floor vote on amendments, so much of what you see in the House I can vote on by rule. I wrote a memo after my first term that if I can vote on committee, and I do, then why can't I vote in the committee of the whole. And much of our work takes place there, so my last vote was Sunday at 1 a.m. The Republicans took this vote when they took over the house, but when Democrats regained control of the house, they returned my vote in the committee of the whole. I have been able to get about the same things for my constituents as anybody else, in part by not acting like I don't have the same rights as everyone else. I can vote in committee, I'm in three committees, rather than the usual two, with the Democrats in power I have become a subcommittee chair of a committee I was able to use for considerable economic advancement of the District.
You don't have to have the vote to yield benefits for your constituents, such as the $5,000 home-buy credit, a unique bill available nowhere else in the country that allows D.C. residents $5,000 off their income taxes if they buy a house in the district. Another is my bill allowing every D.C. resident who graduates from high school $10,000 to go to any public college in the United States, or $2,500 to any private college in the city or region. I argued that this bill was necessary because the District has no state university system, because it's a city, and people often left for the region when their children became college age, and this depressed college attendance in the the District. This bill has double college attendance here in just 5 years.
Still, the full House vote is very necessary, because I don't get to vote on much which is important to my constituents. When we go to Iraq, I don't get to vote on that. My constituents are 2nd in federal income taxes, but can't vote on if taxes should be raised or lowered, just to give two vital examples.
Atlanta: As a former resident moving back to D.C. next month, I am curious other than voting rights what is the biggest issue in Congress that deals with D.C. directly.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: Thank you for that question -- the biggest question really is completing the process of home rule, with budget autonomy from Congress, so you don't have to bring your budget here before you spend your money, and legislative autonomy, so you don't have to bring your laws here before they become final.
Fairfax, Va.: It seems that you and Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia have worked well together over the years.
Do you believe that this ability to work with a representative from the DC suburbs has increased your effectiveness in Congress and has this partnership benefited the Washington Metropolitan region as a whole?
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: Tom Davis has been a pro-home rule congressman from the region, and his respect for home rule has certainly benefited the city. There are other Republicans who support it, but because he's the chair of the committee, it's especially important. As I mentioned before, the Voting Rights bill pairing us with Utah was his conception, and came forward with him as the primary sponsor, when I was in the minority.
Shrewsbury, MA: Would representation for the District become much easier if the local leadership in government there wasn't always the worse of the worst?
One scandal after another. Maybe, like Liberia, District residents can't govern themselves. Why should they be "given" two senators and a representative when the corruption would just spread out?
Serious questions from someone sympathetic to the plight of our fellow citizens.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: I don't know why you would compare us to Liberia, but I appreciate the question. I think it goes back to the terms of Marion Barry, but I invite you to look at 8 years under Mayor Anthony Williams, who reformed the city, including bringing in a new stadium and reviving baseball in D.C., and a man credited and applauded by Congress for reforming D.C. and turning around the reputation of one leader, with whom the scandals you cited are associated, not the people of D.C. Now there's a new dynamic young mayor, Adrian Fenty, who is in the same vintage, only younger, as Anthony Williams. He's just succeeded in taking control of D.C. public schools, and it's believed that with this bold action he can turn around public education in the city.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: I've appreciated the questions about the District, and I understand the overarching issues are issues of disempowerment of the people I represent. Democrats have long maximized the authority and power of the District Delegate. Delegates can do everything but vote on the House floor.
I'm on the Homeland Security Committee, the Government Oversight Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. All three of these have been enormously beneficial to me, in the efforts I make for the D.C. There's a lot of talk about earmarks, and I get the same earmarks everyone else gets -- there's one important difference though. Mine are always for issues that reflect the public interest, like the one I just got help rebuild Eastern Market. I have been able to work as much as anyone else against the Iraq War. I just saw another D.C. National Guard unit off in June.
I'm in the throes of a huge effort in the city, consistent with what other members of the Congressional Black Caucus face, dealing with HIV/AIDS in the black community. Fifty percent of those getting HIV/AIDS today are African Americans, and we're only 12 percent of the population. Besides working on funding issues like the Ryan White Act, I've had a series of town meetings to challenge residents to engage in safe-sex and get tested -- meetings with men, with women, with teens. In the town meeting with women, called "Sex in the City," that's one way to get people to face this epidemic.
In a continuation of my life-long work for civil rights, I have tried to maintain in the center of workplace Civil Rights. As I kid I was in the Civil Rights movement. After law school, I was chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee under President Carter. It was therefore a great opportunity to cosponsor a bill the House just passed to overturn the Supreme Court affecting one of the bills I administered, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Court recently held that a woman who worked in a factory in Alabama, and was paid less than men, could not receive her equal pay. So it's been a joy to bring your life in civil rights to the Congress, where occasionally you have the opportunity to do something about such issues.
May I thank everyone for your interest in the District, and for sticking with me to hear me out on these issues. May I ask you , as well, to do what we in the District cannot do. We have no senators to contact, and our most basic rights now depend on the Senators you have. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, whether you think your senator is for the bill, or against, or you don't know if he's for or against the D.C. Voting Rights Act, I ask you to e-mail or phone both your senators to tell them you will be watching to see them vote for S.1257, the D.C. Voting Rights Act, and to tell them to please, please, don't filibuster this civil rights bill.
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