Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Democratic Capital: A Voting Rights Surge in Washington Could Strengthen the Constitution for Everyone

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Democratic Capital: A Voting Rights Surge in Washington Could Strengthen the Constitution for Everyone

Article excerpt

If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.

-Thomas Jefferson1

i. dwindling options for bringing congressional representation to disenfranchised americans in d.c.

On the long, hard road to political equality with the people of the fifty states, the citizens of Washington, D.C. are running out of options. The modem "home rule" system has been frustrating for several reasons, but its worst feature has been the con- tinuing denial to the local population of equal voting representation in Congress.2 This Pennsylvania Avenue freeze-out translates into a haughty Congressional indifference to the political interests and priorities of the District population, witness a sequence of anti-abortion, antigay rights, and antistatehood riders attached to the District's budget over the years3 and, most recently, the trampling of the District's interests in the government shut-down of October 2013.4 Meantime, the business of national legislative process-Senate confirmation of judicial and executive branch nominees, decisions about the federal budget, war and peace, treaty ratification, the regulation of com- merce, the development of national health care policies, the promotion of the general welfare-continues in the federal city without any participation by Washingtonians in the United States Senate and only the lonely, passionate voice of the District's nonvoting delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.* * 5 Adding insult to injury, a never-ending succession of political scandals in both local and federal Washington seems to fulfill the Anti-Federalists' worst predictions about what it would mean to carve a federal "District" outside of the normal republican relationships in the states and continually attract to the "Seat of the Government"6 the ambitious, the opportunistic, the cunning, the snobby, and all manner of courtesans, worshiping power and money over democratic values.7

No one knows how to transform the District's essential powerlessness in federal affairs, which remains unique and startling as capital cities go on this earth. Every option for achieving equal political membership and participation for 600,000 Washingtonians seems to have been tried and come up short. Consider each major option in turn:

A. Statehood

The local favorite, "statehood" in the vernacular means a shrunken federal district and admission of the residential portions by Congress through simple legislation as the fifty-first state of "New Columbia."8 Yet, no option seems less likely at this point. Even when the most recent two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, took office with concurrent Democratic majorities in Congress, nothing happened. There have been no statehood votes in Congress during the Obama administration's tenure, despite the fact that President Obama received ninety-one percent of the local vote in D.C. in 2012,9 and the U.S. House of Representatives voted a statehood bill down 2-1 in 1993 when Delegate Norton finally managed to get it to the floor.10

In its proper historical context of prior statehood admissions, New Columbia's forlorn statehood petition is perfectly logical but politically anomalous. Most states have entered the Union as part of a bipartisan and sectional deal, roughly in pairs, like animals boarding Noah's Ark.11 That is how Vermont and Kentucky did it back in 1791-1792,12 Maine and Alabama did it as part of Henry Clay's Missouri Compromise in 1819-1820,13 Alaska and Hawaii did it in 1959,14 and so on.15 Statehood admission has always been an intensely ideological and sectional enterprise requiring the highest artistry in political balancing and compromise, but the District has no partner in the project today. The only hypothetically available candidate, Puerto Rico, whose complex multi-party political system has been inching towards statehood in recent years, offers little "balance" because the national Republican Party has almost as much to fear from a Puerto Rican state as from New Columbia. …

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