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Potomac Confidential

At Least D.C. Is Getting Some Respect

The election of President Obama, shown with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty last summer, helps the cause.
The election of President Obama, shown with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty last summer, helps the cause. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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Thursday, January 29, 2009; Page B01

For once, a roomful of members of Congress managed to debate the shame of this democracy with only one cavalierly telling half a million people that if they really want voting rights, all they need do is move.

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For the record, that brilliant character is Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose considered view on whether D.C. residents should be represented in Congress is that they "only have to move five miles to register their vote."

Not long ago, that kind of snide quip was about as serious as the discussion over granting Washingtonians the vote ever got. Times, like tenancy at 1600 Pennsylvania, change: When a House subcommittee held a hearing on D.C. voting rights Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans alike spoke of the injustice of leaving residents of the nation's capital with no voice in decisions over how their money is spent and when their lives might be put at risk.

Even hard-core opponents of adding a House seat for the District no longer make fun of the constitutional flaw that leaves Washingtonians in the unique position of paying federal income tax, serving in the military and yet having no vote.

"Whoever put 'Taxation without Representation' on the license plates of Washington, D.C., it's worked," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). "It's made an impression on me." (Credit Foggy Bottom resident Sarah Shapiro in 2000, with an assist from then-Mayor Tony Williams.)

Gohmert still thinks that adding a D.C. seat in the House by a simple vote of Congress is unconstitutional, but he feels compelled to embrace the larger goal and to offer an alternative: Exempt Washingtonians from paying federal income tax until a constitutional amendment can be passed granting the city the vote.

I wouldn't start canceling the withholding on your paychecks. But the fact that someone like Gohmert no longer tried to score points with folks back home by ripping the District is important progress. So is the shape of Tuesday's debate, in which Republicans turned to a liberal law professor for constitutional cover, while Democrats found academic support from strict constructionist scholars such as Viet Dinh and Ken Starr.

The election of a president who has supported D.C. voting rights and the fact of a black president in what is still a majority-black city add up to a new attitude on this issue.

But hold on: President Obama made it clear during a visit to this newspaper that although he supports a D.C. seat, "this takes on a partisan flavor, and, you know, right now I think our legislative agenda's chock-full." Meaning, don't hold your breath.

Despite euphoria among many Democrats about the new president changing the debate on the District, there remain serious constitutional questions about how to get the job done.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley called the extra seat idea "the most premeditatedly unconstitutional act by Congress in decades. A great wrong has been done to the District, but great wrongs are not righted by violating the Constitution."

Members of Congress are elected, our founding fathers wrote, "by the people of the several states," and the District, by definition, is no state.


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