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Senate Set to Pass D.C. Voting Rights Act

February 20, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

You know that old American slogan, “no taxation without representation?” Well, 233 years after winning our independence from Britain, more than half a million Americans are still fighting for that cause. Despite paying taxes, voting for the President and fighting in wars, residents of Washington D.C. do not have a voting representative in Congress.

A bill in Congress, the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009, would end that by giving D.C. the status of a congressional district and allowing them to elect a member to vote on all matters in the House. It is scheduled for a vote by the Senate on Tuesday.

Washington D.C. is currently served in Congress by a delegate, Rep. Eleanor Norton [D, DC-0] who is allowed to sponsor legislation, vote on issues in committee and speak on the House floor, but can not vote on legislation brought before the House because she is not an actual member of Congress. Since 2003, Norton has been pushing legislation to give D.C. residents a vote in Congress – this may very well be the year she finally succeeds.

In 2007, the House passed a similar bill, but it was blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Eight Republican senators crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats in favor of the bill, but it was not enough to overcome the 60-vote requirement fro ending a filibuster. But with the Democrats expanded majority of 57 seats in the Senate this session, those Republican votes (7 w/o former Sen. Coleman’s vote) will be enough to get it through. The House passed the bill last session by a vote of 241 – 177; there should be no problems there.

Besides adding a voting member for the Democrat-leaning District of Columbia, the bill would also provide a Republican state, Utah, with an additional representative in the House. According to the 2000 census, Utah is the state next in line for an additional seat. It’s an ingenious compromise that helps keep this an issue of civil rights, and not a political power grab. Sweetening the deal for Republicans is the threat that the 2010 consensus could end up giving the additional House seat to a different, possibly Democratic, state.

But the political issue isn’t totally resolved. The bill’s Republican opponents worry that giving D.C. a vote in the House would pave the way for the District to also get two seats in the Senate. That’s because the Constitution states that the House shall be “composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states.” The thinking here is that the bill would strengthen the case for a legal argument to be made that since D.C. has a vote in the House, according to the Constitution, it must be a state. And if it’s a state, then it needs two senators.

But the Constitution also states that Congress shall “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the district, which, one could argue, includes the ability to give it a voting member in the House.

During the Senate debate, Sen. Jim DeMint [R, SC] is planning to force a vote on the Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2009, which would “prevent the Federal Communications Commission from repromulgating the ”">fairness doctrine." How that is germane to the D.C. voting issue, I have no idea.

(Image by dbking used under a CC license.)

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