Another dream deferred

Our view: The District of Columbia’s hopes for a seat in Congress were dashed again this week

was keeping tough gun-control laws intact worth forgoing the right to vote?

April 24, 2010

The District of Columbia, which only last week seemed on the verge of finally achieving residents' long-cherished goal of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, saw that dream deferred yet again when the compromise it had worked out with Congress collapsed Tuesday. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer a Maryland Democrat who had supported the D.C. voting rights legislation, said the measure was being withdrawn because of a mischievous amendment tacked onto the bill that would have repealed most of the district's gun-control laws, a prospect that had sharply divided House Democrats and eroded support for the measure in the Senate.

From the start, the deal that would have given the District a vote on the House floor — the city's current representative, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, can only participate in committee votes — was a messy, Rube Goldberg device with so many moving parts that even Washington policy wonks had trouble understanding it. It seemed to change from day to day, and up to the final hour hardly anyone appeared to know exactly how it would work.

One element involved the creation of a matching new congressional district in solidly Republican Utah, a compromise aimed at maintaining the House's partisan balance after the overwhelmingly Democratic District took its seat. That effort broke down at the last minute when Utah's senior senator, Republican Orrin Hatch, unexpectedly announced that he still couldn't support the measure because it called for an at-large seat instead of one with defined geographical boundaries. Senator Hatch didn't say it, but after the 2010 Census Utah is likely to get another congressional district anyway, so he probably figured, why dilute its influence by giving the Democratic District a vote?

Meanwhile, the gun-control issue at first seemed like something that could be worked around after the District's vote in the House was assured. The amendment to gut the District's gun laws, offered by Reps. Travis Childers, a Mississippi Democrat, and Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, was obviously instigated by the gun lobby to curry favor among tea party conservatives and militia extremists. But until Monday, Delegate Norton thought the problem could be straightened out in the conference committee slated to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. That morning, however, she learned the NRA had drafted an update of the House bill crafted to make it virtually impossible for Democratic liberals in the Senate to support. A few hours later, she issued a statement warning that "three outrageous provisions" newly added to the House bill "virtually guarantee the loss of some Senate Democratic support, and therefore of the D.C. voting rights bill."

The newly added provisions would have stripped the D.C. police chief of any discretion in the issuing of permits for concealed or openly carried firearms and made it almost impossible for the District to enact any laws regulating guns in public, including in government buildings, schools, hospitals and office buildings. That's when Ms. Norton asked Mr. Hoyer to pull the bill off the House schedule, killing any chance of enacting a voting rights bill for the moment.

This is a huge setback for the District, because this year was probably the best opportunity in a generation to give Washington residents a vote in Congress. To see it all come apart over the wholly extraneous issue of gun control must be frustrating in the extreme — especially in light of the fact that Washington's gun-control laws, which are among the strictest in the nation, probably don't have as much of an impact on crime in the city as many residents think. Surrounded by neighboring states where it's relatively easy to buy guns, the kind of people who would use them maliciously aren't likely to be deterred from bringing them into the city in any case.

Washingtonians' resentment against Congress for meddling in local affairs is certainly understandable, springing as it does from the long history of federal oversight of the capital that often benefited lawmakers at the expense of city residents. The brouhaha over gun control was just another example of the cynical games Congress plays using its constitutional authority to oversee District affairs. Add to that the complicating factors of a hotly contested District mayoral primary this fall in which the two main candidates came down on different sides of the issue, and the timorous Senate Democrats who have their own re-election worries this year, and perhaps it's no wonder the whole scheme collapsed under its own weight.

Still, one wonders whether voters there shouldn't have bitten the bullet and seized the chance for a historic breakthrough. Surely it would be a pity if years from now — and possibly, decades — the District's residents were to find themselves in the same situation they're facing today, with no vote in Congress and still wondering whether the trade-off between keeping their gun-control laws and forgoing at the franchise was worth it.

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