House Trio to Offer D.C. Voting Rights Bills in 2004

Posted January 16, 2004 at 5:51pm

Advocates of voting rights for the District of Columbia are hoping their cause gets a boost in coming weeks as three House Members plan to introduce new measures that would elevate Congressional representation for the city’s nearly 600,000 residents.

The bills will include a range of options for Congressional representation — from a single House seat for the District to full statehood.

“We welcome this interest, particularly from our Republican colleagues, in voting rights,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), sponsor of the No Taxation Without Representation Act, which would create one House seat and two Senate seats for the District. “We’ve never regarded this as anything but democratic, small ‘d’, or doubted that Americans who are Republicans would be just as astounded to know we don’t have [voting] rights.”

Two of the new bills, expected to be introduced early in the second session of the 108th Congress, are sponsored by Republican Members: Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.). Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) also announced plans last week to introduce a bill promoting statehood for the District.

Voting rights activists are pleased that the three bills — in addition to Norton’s proposed legislation, which is pending in the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution — will cover a wide range of options.

The Davis proposal would provide the District with one House seat and no Senate representation, according to Davis spokesman David Marin.

Under the proposal, both D.C. and Utah — which fell short of earning a fourth district during the post-2000 Census reapportionment — would gain new House seats. The House would temporarily grow to 437 seats, until the next reapportionment cycle following the 2010 Census, when it would revert to 435.

The Rohrabacher bill would similarly expand the House, pairing a District House seat with that of the next state in line based on population, presumably Utah.

The District’s new House seat would be counted as part of the Maryland delegation, however, serving as the Old Line State’s 9th district. The legislation would require D.C. to be maintained in a single Congressional district, unless the city’s population exceeds the size of the average Maryland district. In that case, at least one district would be comprised of 100 percent D.C. residents, and additional districts could include both Maryland and D.C. voters.

In addition, D.C. residents would also be eligible to vote for Maryland’s two Senate seats.

“We must correct this 200-year-old injustice to the U.S. citizens who live in our nation’s capital,” Rohrabacher, who was traveling and could not be reached for additional comment, said in a statement. The lawmaker previously served as ranking member on the now-defunct Committee on the District of Columbia.

Because Washington would essentially become a Maryland Congressional district, the city would lose the three votes it currently has in the Electoral College and Maryland would gain one additional vote.

“There may be some Democrats who have problems with that,” said Rohrabacher Chief of Staff Richard Dykema, who asserted that the change won’t be a major obstacle for the bill. “We go about restoring Congressional representation in a very fair and balanced way. Both parties take a small amount of risk in supporting it for their national ambitions.”

It is not clear whether Maryland’s two Democratic Senators, Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, would support such a bill, and neither office returned calls seeking comment. Moreover, both are listed as co-sponsors on the Senate version of Norton’s legislation.

“We don’t expect to back them off of that, but the question will be what happens in the House side, what will the D.C. Delegate be willing to accept to get full and equal representation in Congress,” said Dykema.

At a press conference Friday at the National Press Club, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized proposals that would link House seats in Utah and the District. Pelosi asserted the legislation could “open a can of worms,” prompting “other states who feel they were not treated fairly in reapportionment” to seek additional House seats.

But D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) praised the proposals last week — “They are all important” — and said he favors Norton’s.

“As a short-term measure I support Tom Davis’s plan,” Williams added.

Perhaps the most arduous of the new legislation is Kucinich’s, which would begin the process of making the District the 51st state.

“The idea is that we don’t have to take everything in half steps or baby steps, on a number of issues, not just on D.C. statehood,” explained David Swanson, a spokesman for Kucinich’s presidential campaign.

Legislation seeking statehood has not been introduced in nearly a decade, since Norton sponsored the failed New Columbia Admission Act during the 104th Congress. But a similar measure has made it through Congress. The last constitutional amendment to win Capitol Hill approval, in 1978, would have given the District full voting representation but not statehood. That bill failed in 1985, after only 16 of the necessary 38 states ratified it.

Swanson acknowledged a statehood bill would be unlikely to pass during the 108th Congress, and suggested the act is more symbolic.

“We don’t have any illusions as to what can be passed under this Republican Congress and with the current administration, but we need to start the process now and raise the issue, and make it part of the national debate,” Swanson said. “Until the majority of Americans outside of the District know about the issue, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Regardless of which bill they support, many voting rights advocates said they are hopeful the influx of legislation could produce publicity and momentum for their cause.

“With that many bills, that might convince the Judiciary Committee that they ought to have a hearing on the subject, which we think would be good,” Dykema said.

The Government Reform Committee will also hold hearings on creating voting rights for the District in early 2004, Marin said.

“Chairman Davis believes that when it comes to issues this important, more is better: Every bill, every petition, every mention on a prime time TV show helps elevate the dialogue,” Marin said. And while Davis will consider each bill, Marin added: “At the end of the day, he thinks his proposal is the one that legislatively grants D.C. residents the maximum voting rights permitted under the Constitution.”

Similarly, Norton said she welcomes the additional legislation but will remain committed to her own proposal.

“I support my bill. I’m not willing to say that I support any bill except my bill at this time,” Norton said. At press time, only Norton’s legislation had a companion bill in the Senate, and aides involved with the three new bills said they plan to focus on building support in the House.

“I don’t think you will find that D.C. residents will automatically embrace [the new bills], but they have every reason to welcome them,” Norton said. “Out of this set of bills will come a solution to what has become quite an intolerable dilemma.”