'This longstanding injustice'


At the risk of lulling you to sleep, I wish to point out that Congress finally seems poised to correct a grave injustice long inflicted on the aggrieved 588,292 citizens of Washington, D.C.

Washingtonians are required to pay federal taxes, just like all other Americans on the continent. They are permitted to sue in the federal courts, like all other Americans. They can, if they choose to do so, serve in the military, like all other Americans. They can vote in presidential elections, and they are represented in the Electoral College, like all other Americans. In legal spheres, their economic activities are regulated by the same interstate commerce rules that apply nationwide. Yet for the last 208 years - ever since the District of Columbia was created - Washingtonians have been denied full representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If you really think about, it's pretty weird. Washington has roughly the same population as Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska, yet its citizens have fewer democratic rights. Actually, at this point the people of Baghdad have more voting representation in their national legislature than the people of Washington have on Capitol Hill.

This may soon change; an historic milestone may be at hand.

Late this week, the Senate may follow the House's lead and pass a bill awarding a congressional seat to the District. President Obama has already indicated that he would sign it (reversing the No stance of his predecessor). No doubt, there would be constitutional challenges - more on that in a moment - and the Supreme Court could ultimately be required to weigh in. But Washingtonians are currently making more progress on this issue than at any time since 1978.

Yeah, I know. This issue is an eye-roller. For 170 years, Washingtonians weren't even allowed to elect their own mayor; the "Home Rule" movement waxed and waned for so long that the press deemed it a non-story. In the film All The President's Men, which takes place in 1972, a roomful of Washington Post editors are kicking around story ideas, and one guy says, "I think we could mention that this might be the time to go to the front page with District Home Rule," and everybody laughs and scoffs. The persistent editor, addressing his boss Ben Bradlee, says, "Ben, this time it could go all the way," and Bradlee, bored and jaded, barely musters the energy to say, "OK, well, when they pass it, we'll run with it."

But Home Rule finally did pass, in 1973. And this time, in 2009, the movement to give Washington a real congressman could indeed go all the way. Republicans have been politically resistant to the idea for a long time, since it's a slam dunk that the minority-majority city will elect a Democrat in perpetuity. But the deal on the Hill would be to create a new seat for the Republicans in Utah (which seems poised to get a new seat anyway, in the wake of the next census), in exchange for some GOP support on awarding full voting rights in Washington. It also should be mentioned that some Republicans sincerely want to take the high road and support the full democratic aspirations of the city's African-American electorate (in a sense, this is a civil rights issue), if only to signal that the party still aspires to embrace inclusion.

Opponents, however, still insist that the DC voting rights bill is unconstitutional, based on a literal reading of the Founding Fathers. The U.S. Constitution says that full congressional representation shall be awarded only to "the people of the several states." True enough. The document was ratified in 1789, when every U.S. citizen lived in a state; as yet, there was no such entity as the District of Columbia. That didn't happen until 1801, when the District was carved out of land ceded by Maryland and Virginia.

But how would it be legal to enact a law giving Washingtonians a congressman, when there is no such wording in the Constitution? Well, consider this: The Constitution, thanks to the 16th Amendment, gives Congress the power to levy federal taxes "among the several states." There's nothing in that wording about the District - yet citizens of the District have to pay federal taxes like everybody else.

Similarly, the Constitution says only that the citizens of "different states" can sue each other in federal court. Congress later extended that right to Washingtonians, and the Supreme Court upheld that right in a ruling 60 years ago.

As one legal scholar contended not long ago, "There is nothing in our Constitution's history or its fundamental principles suggesting that the Framers intended to deny the precious right to vote to those who live in the capital of the great democracy they founded." It was high time, this ex-federal judge argued, that Congress and the president stand up for the half a million Washingtonians and correct "this longstanding injustice."

That's Kenneth Starr - the same guy who pursued Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal. If someone with Starr's conservative credentials is making that kind of argument, it's fair to suggest that full voting rights for the District might actually have a fighting chance...But wait!

Now it turns out that GOP Senator John Ensign has introduced a "poison pill" amendment to the bill, mandating the erasure of the Washington city council's gun control laws. Clearly, that amendment is strategically intended to gum up the works, and make ultimate passage more difficult. But its implicit message - that some Republican from Nevada can presume to dictate social policy inside the city - is precisely the kind of paternalism that the District voting-rights movement has been battling for generations.


UPDATE: The Senate voted late today to award a House seat to the District. The vote was 61-37, with 36 of 41 Republicans saying No. Ensign's free-the-guns amendment is in there; it may indeed gum up the works when the House and Senate meet to reconcile their bills.