WASHINGTON – After more than 200 years of paying taxes, fighting in the nation's wars and abiding by sometimes arbitrary acts of Congress, Washington residents are close to getting a full-fledged representative in the House.
The turning point in this long battle for enfranchisement may be an unlikely partnership with the people of Utah.
The new Democratic majority, in the first months of the new Congress, is expected to take up a bill that would increase the voting membership of the House from 435 to 437, giving new vote each to Utah, a Republican stronghold, and the District of Columbia, dominated by Democrats.
Prospects are also good in the Senate. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who calls himself an independent Democrat, will chair the committee of jurisdiction there. Lieberman is a leading supporter of the measure, and Utah's two Republican senators have endorsed it as well.
Senate action is needed because Congress in 1929 enacted a law fixing House membership at 435 seats. The number was increased to 437 in 1959 after Alaska and Hawaii became states, but reverted to 435 after the 1960 census. The legislation that would add new seats for D.C. and Utah would keep the House at 437 members.
Washington residents have been clamoring for representation ever since Congress moved to Washington from Philadelphia in 1800. Regardless, the 600,000 citizens of the district are still the only residents of a national capital in any democracy in the world without full voting rights.
Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group seeking voting representation in the House and Senate, said racist attitudes toward Washington, with its heavily black population since the Civil War, long have been a factor, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when the demands for equal rights and statehood became more vocal in the city.
Some progress was made: The 23rd Amendment in 1961 gave D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections. In 1971 Congress allowed the district to send a nonvoting delegate to the House. Currently, along with delegates from American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton can cast votes at the committee level but not on the House floor.
Congress also gave the district limited home rule in the 1970s, and in 1978 approved a constitutional amendment extending voting rights. The amendment died when it was not ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Most — but by no means all — scholars say an amendment is unnecessary. The Constitution says that the House shall be composed of members chosen by "the people of the several states." But it also gives Congress the power "to exercise exclusive legislation" over the seat of the federal government, interpreted by some to mean that Congress can, if it wants, give D.C. voting rights.
Republicans, after capturing the majority in 1995, were naturally cool to the idea of giving Democrats another sure vote in the House, but it was a Republican, Rep. Tom Davis of Washington's northern Virginia suburbs, who several years ago came up with the link between Utah and the District.
Utah insists that the 2000 census undercounted the state's population because so many of the state's young Mormon men were out of state or out of the country doing missionary work. Utahans said a proper count would have entitled the state to an additional representative, up from the current three.
"They wanted the seat as desperately as we did," Norton said in an interview. "We became joined at the hip."
Earlier this month the Utah legislature, to comply with the Davis-Norton bill, approved a redistricting plan creating three largely Republican districts and one more urban district where Democrats might have a better chance.
Davis said he plans to reintroduce his bill at the beginning of the new Congress in January. In the meantime, Norton, a delegate since 1990, is also pressing her Democratic colleagues to back a change in House rules so she can vote on amendments to legislation, but not final passage.
Norton had that voting right in 1993 and 1994, but Republicans rescinded it when they took over in 1995.
This, she said in a letter, would be a "temporary remedy pending consideration of the full House representation that American citizens who live in the nation's capital are entitled to and that Democrats have always supported."