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Voting rights in Washington, D.C.
Many democracy activists argue for District of Columbia voting rights—i.e., full and equitable representation for citizens of the city of Washington, D.C. in the United States Congress. Currently (since 1961, or in practice the election of 1964), residents of the District can vote for presidential candidates but District residents still do not have voting representation in Congress (neither the House nor the Senate). Citizens of Washington are represented in the House of Representatives by a non-voting delegate who sits on committees and participates in debate but cannot vote. D.C. does not have any representation whatsoever in the United States Senate. Citizens of Washington, D.C. are thus unique in the world, as citizens of the capital cities of every other country have the same representation rights as other citizens.
While the District's official motto is Justitia omnibus ("Justice to All"), the words "Taxation Without Representation", echoing the Revolutionary slogan, "Taxation without Representation is Tyranny!", were added to DC license plates in 2000, and there is a current movement to the add the words "No Taxation Without Representation" to the D.C. flag. Advocates who have supported these changes have said that they are intended as a protest and to raise awareness in the rest of the country. These measures in particular were chosen because the D.C. flag is one of the few things under direct local control without requiring approval from Congress.
Advocates have proposed several, competing reforms to increase the District's representation in Congress. These proposals generally either treat D.C. more like a state (see D.C. Statehood) or involve the state of Maryland taking back the land it ceded to form the district, as Virginia did in the mid-19th century.
Proposals to treat the District of Columbia in some way as a state
- Have Congress pass legislation that would treat DC as if it were a state for the purposes of voting representation in Congress. Senator Joseph Lieberman introduced The No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2003 (S. 617) on March 13, 2003, in the U.S. Senate, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the same Act in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1285).
- Amend the Constitution. In 1978, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have given full congressional voting representation to residents of the District of Columbia passed through both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. However, by 1985, when the seven year limit on ratification of the amendment set within the Congressional resolution adopting it expired, the amendment had only passed in 16 of 38 states necessary.
- Statehood for the District of Columbia. Statehood for DC was last discussed in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1993, and was defeated by the vote of 277 to 153.
Proposals to recombine D.C. with Maryland
The process of reuniting D.C. with the state of Maryland is sometimes referred to as retrocession. The original District of Columbia was formed out of parts of both Maryland and Virginia, and from 1790 until 1801 citizens living in D.C. continued to vote for, and even run as, candidates for the U.S. Congress in Maryland or Virginia. In 1846 the land from Virginia was given back to Virginia, such that all the land in present-day D.C. was once part of Maryland.
If both the U.S. Congress and the Maryland state legislature agreed, jurisdiction over the District of Columbia could be returned to Maryland.
Under a less ambitious proposal, residents of D.C. would be treated as Maryland voters for the purposes of Congressional elections. Congress could give D.C. residents the right to vote for Maryland candidates for the Senate and House, and Maryland's representation in the House could be calculated accordingly.
Modifications of the current system
Another alternative, along with giving DC equal representation in both Houses, might have Congress maintain the current oversight over the District, but significantly restrain the degree of oversight, perhaps requiring a super-majority vote of both Houses to overturn local laws passed by locally elected officials. This proposed modification of the current system would require a Constitutional Amendment, to preclude the above changes from being withdrawn by Congress.
This approach would largely preserve for DC governance the fundamental democratic principle that "just power derives from the consent of the governed", while still allowing the national legislature to exercise the last word in cases where the overriding national interest requires, as defined by a super-majority "national consensus" vote in both Houses.
The District is, according to the United States Constitution, under the jurisdiction of the United States Congress in "all cases whatsover" (Article I, Section 8, Clause 17). Specifically, the House and Senate each had standing committees charged with the oversight of the District, known as the District committees.
The District committees were long regarded as the least-powerful of all of the Congressional standing committees; there was little interest from constituents "back home" as to whether the District was well-governed or not, and little ability to use a seat on these committees to engage in projects of direct benefit to the senators' or representatives' constituents. This often made the District committes into "dumping grounds" for congressmen judged to be unworthy of major assignments or unpopular with their peers or even for violators of party discipline. The most notorious such case may be the placement of Senator Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi on the Senate District Committee in the 1930s and 1940s, apparently as the place deemed that he could do the least harm. Bilbo's virulent racism and abrasive manner had made him something of a Senate pariah; however inflicting someone of his nature on the District and its increasingly-black population was of course somewhat disastrous for District residents. Subsequent reorganizations of the committee system resulted in the functions of the District committees being assumed by other committees.
In 1963, the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, allowing District residents to vote for president and vice president.
In 1978, Congress passed on to the states another constitutional amendment, the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, which would have given the Disrict its own voting members of Congress, making it virtually a state. However, a seven-year time limit was placed on ths amendment, which was subsequently ratified by only a handful of states, far short of the three-quarters (currently 38) required for it to be ratified. For that process to begin again, the amendment would need to pass Congress again. As the District is heavily Democratic, the passage of such an amendment in today's Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely. In anticipation of the amendment's ratification, in 1980 District voters approved the call of a Constitutional Convention to draft a proposed state constitution, just as U.S. territories in the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries had done prior to their admission as states. The proposed constitution was ratifed by District voters in 1982 for a new state to be called "New Columbia"; however the failure of the proposed U.S. Constitutional amendment to be ratified by the states made this action essentially meaningless. The District still selects an unrecognized "shadow Senator" to lobby for its interests in the U.S. Senate, but this arrangement falls well short of genuine voting representation in that body.
Devolution of authority
Constitutionally, the District remains under the jurisdiction of Congress. However, at various times in its history, Congress has chosen to devolve some of its authority to District residents. For part of this time, the District was formally organized as a United States territory, the Territory of the District of Columbia . The results have been mixed, at best; in the 19th century the District government built a canal where the National Mall now is; in fact the bricks used to build the "Castle" building of the Smithsonian Institution were floated down this canal. The District government was later to abandon this expensive project and left the canal to become something of an open sewer; this was one of the reasons cited for abolishing District government at the time and returning to direct Congressional rule.
In the 1960s, small steps were made to allow District residents to have rights somewhat similar to residents of a city in one of the states. The office of mayor became an elected position again, rather than a presidential appointment, and the District Council was allowed more authority. The District also received a non-voting Delegate to Congress, much like a territory.
In 1973, Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, giving D.C. the right to elect a mayor and council with powers comparable to state and local governments elsewhere in the United States. This move resulted in the formation of the Council of the District of Columbia. While the move was widely celebrated as making government more responsive to the needs of residents, all legislation passed by D.C. government remained subject to the approval of Congress.
Increased congressional oversight
The tenure of Marion Barry as D.C. mayor was marked by increased strain between the local and federal governments, as well as an increase in exercise of congressional authority over the District. Barry was elected in 1979 as a reformer, and was well respected for his history as a civil rights worker. However, in the 1980s the District government began to grow beyond its ability to tax or Congress' willingness to pay. Conservative members of Congress were outraged, showing that the District had a higher percentage of its residents on the municipal payroll than almost any other city in the U.S., yet services were often compared to those of a Third World country. Crime, already high, skyrocketed even as the infrastructure deteriorated. In 1990, Barry was alleged to have engaged in prostitution, possession of cocaine, and perjury. This controversy led him to step down as mayor in 1991. With the District government discredited, Congress exercised its constitutional authority again and imposed a fiscal oversight board to take control of the District's finances.
Today, the District seems to be on a firmer financial footing again, in thanks due to the outstanding relationships which seem to have developed between Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Members of Congress with regard to oversight of and budgeting for the District.
One issue that is likely to become contentious between the District and Congress in the near future is guns. In 1976, the District's home rule government passed the most severe gun restrictions in the United States. Possession of handguns is prohibited to ordinary citizens, and the District requires registration of long guns. A substantial number of gun-rights advocates within the current Republican majority in Congress are proposing to end the District's handgun ban and gun registration system by federal law.
The future seems likely to continue much like the present, with Congress exercising farily close oversight with regard to the District government in a way it never would with a state, but without the fiscal review board exercising the tight control it did for much of the 1990s. A compromise may even be reached which would allow the District's delegate to Congress to be raised to the status of a full voting member of the U.S. House but still leave the District unrepresented in the Senate, where the Senators are supposed to represent states, which the District is not; most legal experts believe that even this compromise would require a constitutional amendment, which makes its prospects dubious for the partisan reasons cited above.
- History of Self-Government in Washington, DC, from the Council of the District of Columbia
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