The District is overdue for representation

October 20, 2003|By Thomas Goldwasser

WASHINGTON -- Like millions of other Americans, I recently performed my civic duty by serving on a jury for a case of murder in the first degree.

As a longtime resident of the District of Columbia, I, along with my fellow 572,000 citizens, pay the second highest per capita federal tax burden in the nation after Connecticut.

More residents of the District, as Washington is known to locals, have died in our country's military conflicts than residents of 10 states.

Reserve units from the nation's capital continue to serve and risk their lives in Iraq.

However, unknown to virtually every American, Washington is the only democratic capital in the world whose citizens do not have full voting rights in their national legislature.

The founding fathers set off an enclave as the national capital to conduct the country's business. And since they allowed only residents of states to elect senators and representatives, District residents always have been denied that basic Constitutional right. We're the only tax-paying citizens without it.

While every state chooses two senators, each state's House quota is based on population. Currently, in the 108th Congress, seven states have only one House member. California, with 35 million people, has 53. We have no senators and only one nonvoting delegate in the House.

District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton can vote only in committee. Senators and representatives from the entire country have veto power over all laws passed by the District government, including its annual budget. The Superior Court judge who presided at the trial I attended serves on the only local court in the country whose judges must be nominated by the president. Would any state stand for this arrangement?

Those who want to perpetuate this flagrant injustice justify their actions with the Constitution's requirement that only states are entitled to full representation. But this edict has been circumvented previously and should be again.

The 23rd Amendment, ratified in March 1961, treated the District as if it were a state. It allocated the District of Columbia "A number of electors for President and Vice President to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State." Since then, we've had the minimal number -- three, based on two senators and one House member.

There may be a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Republican Rep. Tom Davis, who represents a northern Virginia district across the Potomac River, not only admits that the capital's lack of full representation is a travesty, he intends to do something about it. He's considering a proposal that would increase the House from 435 to 437 members -- giving the overwhelmingly Democratic capital a full House seat in exchange for an additional Republican seat for Utah, which lost one of its four districts as a result of the 2000 reapportionment.

This proposal does not address Senate representation. But another plan does. Returning the District to Maryland, as it was before 1801, and adding a House seat, would give us full representation.

But District residents must be realistic; with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, this proposal has no chance of passage.

In 1978, with Democratic control in the House and Senate and Democrat Jimmy Carter in the White House, both chambers garnered the two-thirds vote required to pass a Constitutional amendment giving District residents full voting privileges. But it failed to get the necessary three-quarters vote of the 50 states.

We in the District are doing all we can to remedy this unpardonable injustice. We are trying to educate Americans about our plight with license plates whose slogan reads "Taxation Without Representation." Also, in order to draw maximum attention, we're attempting to hold the first Democratic presidential primary early in May.

We hope that the American people's sense of equality and fair play will be awakened and will lead them to convince their senators and House members that the citizens of Washington are entitled to the full voting rights that are enjoyed by every other taxpaying citizen of the United States.

Thomas Goldwasser teaches American government at the University of Baltimore.

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