D.C. vote clears one hurdle to face more

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Listeners to Kojo Nnamdi’s radio program here have been calling for weeks, hopeful that the District of Columbia is finally on the verge of receiving a full vote in Congress.

The goal is tantalizingly close. For the first time in three decades, the Senate last week approved a bill that would grant a House seat to the district, removing one of the largest hurdles to the measure. The bill passed with a substantial majority, 61 to 37.

And yet Nnamdi, who hosts a public affairs show, has a sense of foreboding. The district has had its share of heartbreaks and near-misses -- the most recent being two years ago, when a similar measure died on the Senate floor after passing the House, just three votes short of approval.


“This is beginning to feel awfully familiar,” Nnamdi said.

Before the legislation passed the Senate, lawmakers added language concerning gun rights that could delay, undermine or even scuttle the bill. Beyond that, opponents of the new House seat have vowed a court challenge to the legislation if it is enacted, which many legal experts think would be successful.

So what would have been a shining moment of triumph for voting rights advocates such as Nnamdi now feels a bit like a parade in the rain.

“It takes significant air out of the balloon,” he said.

The voting rights measure, the product of a legislative deal, would add two seats to the House: one for the strongly Democratic district, which currently has a nonvoting delegate in the chamber, and another that initially would be awarded to Republican-leaning Utah. That seat would later be apportioned according to the 2010 census.

The District of Columbia, a federal territory, has never had congressional representation. Its residents can vote for president, in local races and on ballot issues.

In 2000, license plates here began to feature the slogan “Taxation Without Representation.”

With Democrats holding large majorities in both houses of Congress, there never seemed to be a better time for action. But the gun rights language tacked to the bill Thursday created complications.


Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), the sponsor of the amendment, said it was needed because the district took steps to regulate guns after a Supreme Court decision last year struck down Washington’s near-absolute ban on handguns.

But opponents say the language would gut all district gun regulations, including a ban on trafficking firearms obtained from nearby states where gun sales are permitted.

Gun rights was only one issue that lawmakers debated that could strip votes away from the legislation.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) secured an amendment that stated the Federal Communications Commission could not reinstitute the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which it once used to ensure that political speech was balanced on the airwaves.

Another senator, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), proposed doing away with the requirement that district residents pay federal income tax.

Still, voting rights advocates appeared elated at the Senate victory. “Winning the Senate is like winning the lottery,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate.


The House soon will take up a similar bill, which is likely to pass easily. Then the two versions must be reconciled in a conference committee. President Obama has suggested he would sign a final bill.

But even if that happens, a vote for the District of Columbia is no sure thing.

A court challenge probably would be fast-tracked to the federal appeals court in Washington, and the matter may end up in the Supreme Court before long.

Some have speculated that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, traditionally the court’s swing vote, could be the final arbiter of whether the district has a congressional seat.

Many members of Congress, including Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), are convinced the law would be struck down.

Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School who has testified before Congress on this and similar legislation, says the Constitution clearly states that members of the House must come from states. And the district simply is not a state.

Any other determination, he warns, could result in other federal territories, such as Puerto Rico, seeking a similar accommodation.


“This would be a tragedy,” Turley said. “The sponsors will have vested years in this ill-conceived idea that will result in a stinging defeat in court.”

He thinks such a loss might cripple the movement for decades and that supporters should have pursued a constitutional amendment. But that strategy failed in 1978.

Supporters of the voting rights point to a clause in the Constitution that grants Congress the power to determine the district’s welfare.

“The district differs from the U.S. territories in several significant ways,” said Jaline Quinto of DC Vote, an advocacy group. “D.C. residents pay federal income taxes, to the tune of nearly $5 billion a year. The territories do not. Additionally, Congress is given exclusive jurisdiction over the district as granted by the Constitution.”

Other backers put it more plainly.

“The bottom line,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), “is that no person should be denied the right to vote in this society.”