The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has exposed the harsh realities of life in disadvantaged sections of New Orleans. Amid the enormous response from our government and nation, the people of New Orleans – through their elected representatives – will have a voice in the rebuilding of their city. Washington, D.C., citizens deserve the same voting rights, and Congress should work to pass a D.C. voting rights bill.
Just getting back from a weeklong trip to Russia, a country that appears to be regressing on political liberalization, I find it ironic that I return to work in a city whose citizens are not represented in Congress. Recognizing the historical evolution of D.C., as well as the exigencies of our political parties, I realize granting its citizens a U.S. representative is not simple.
The D.C. voting rights struggle is one of the last great civil rights challenges facing our nation. The nearly 600,000 people living in America’s capital have no vote in Congress. This means they have no vote on health care, jobs, education, taxes, homeland security and foreign policy. Like New Orleans, Washington, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, has an African-American majority of residents. Given our troubled history with race relations in this country, this fact alone should propel us to action.
We need a district representative in Congress for many reasons. Too many Washingtonians live in poverty. More than one-third are illiterate. The public school system is in crisis. There are more incidents of AIDS per capita than any other city, and the infant mortality rate rivals that of many developing countries.
President Bush is right when he says that we must deal with urban blight. Our nation’s capital should be "ground zero" in that effort. While congressional voting representation would not be a panacea for what ails Washington, more meaningful representation in Congress will make a difference.
Washington is not a state, nor should it be. Our founders envisioned a federal city not located in any of the member states. However, when our founders established this federal city 205 years ago, they did not foresee 600,000 disenfranchised tax-paying citizens in a city that is as populated as other states.
Today we have a legislative vehicle around which to rally the Congress. Representative Tom Davis, R-Va., recently reintroduced the DC Fairness in Representation Act (H.R. 2043) with Republican and Democratic co-sponsors and the support of the D.C. city council and mayor.
Davis and others are tapping into a strong sentiment throughout the country. A poll conducted in January showed that 82 percent of Americans believe D.C. residents deserve voting representation in Congress. Support in the poll cuts across party lines with 87 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans in favor.
Congress does not have to pass a constitutional amendment or grant statehood to the district to give Washingtonians voting representation. Conservative legal experts Kenneth Starr and Viet Dinh believe that Congress has the authority under the U.S. Constitution to provide such representation through simple legislation.
The DC FAIR Act represents renewed momentum and a creative approach to addressing this issue. Democratic-leaning Washington would be given one voting representative in the U.S. House. Additionally, a House member would be added to historically Republican Utah, a state that narrowly lost getting a fourth congressional seat after the U.S. Census in 2000.
Throughout history, many Republicans have advocated D.C. voting rights. Bob Dole, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Prescott Bush (grandfather of our current president) and the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, to name a few, have supported voting rights in Congress for Americans living in our nation’s capital.
Now there is new energy behind this cause with champions like Davis, Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.; Ralph Regula, R-Ohio; Chris Cannon, R-Utah; Chris Shays, R-Conn.; and others in the House. There are signs that Republicans in the Senate, as well, are warming up to this bill.
People around the country believe that democracy is a birthright for all Americans, including those living in the District of Columbia. People also believe that our urban centers need help. This is an opportune time for Republicans to reach out and provide D.C. residents with voting representation. Leaders in Congress should work to pass the DC FAIR Act. It’s time to bring American democracy to America’s capital.