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7' trial to test citizen rights
(Published January 12, 2004)
By BILL MOSLEY
In my inaugural column for the Common Denominator, published last October, I wrote about seven D.C. activists – including myself – who were arrested in the Cannon House Office Building on Oct. 1 while petitioning Congress to free the District’s budget from congressional control.
We will argue our case before a jury of our peers in D.C. Superior Court beginning Tuesday, Jan. 27, on a charge of unlawful entry into the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert – even though the office lobby we "unlawfully entered" was a public area open to lobbyists, staff and tourists. We each face a potential criminal conviction, six months in jail and a $500 fine for this non-violent attempt to petition Congress. While awaiting trial, we are barred from entering the U.S. Capitol.
The day of our arrests was the beginning of the D.C. and federal fiscal years, when the budget for 2003 expired and the budget for 2004 was supposed to kick in – except that it didn’t. Although the D.C. government had long since approved its budget (more than 75 percent of it derived from locally raised funds), spending for the new year remained in limbo because Congress had not yet granted its approval – an impasse intolerable on the grounds of both democracy and fiscal sanity. Year after year, Congress fails to approve the D.C. budget on time, delaying new funding for critical programs such as schools, public safety and health care.
In addition, while the D.C. budget crawls through the appropriations process, members of Congress frequently attach policy riders without the consent of D.C. voters. Needle exchange programs are one example; these programs have proven effective elsewhere in preventing HIV/AIDS, but Congress has forbidden the D.C. government from funding them. The requirement that the District adopt a school voucher program is a new budget rider added this year.
This outrage spurred the Oct. 1 Capitol Hill rally where several dozen D.C. citizens demanded that the District be allowed to control its own locally raised tax dollars just as every state, territory and commonwealth (including Puerto Rico) can. Following the rally, I was part of a delegation that visited the offices of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Northern Virginia Congressman Tom Davis and Speaker Hastert.
We petitioned Norton’s office because she is our elected representative in the House. However, because she has no vote on the floor, her pleas for equality for the District are muted. In order to advance the District’s struggle of more than two centuries for full democracy, we decided that it was necessary to capture the attention of those members who do have votes.
We met with Davis, one of the leading congressional overseers of the District, urging him to move quickly on pending legislation to grant partial budget autonomy by removing the District’s budget from the federal appropriations process. And we visited Hastert who, as agenda-setter for the House, had the power to move the legislation forward – and who had ignored requests for a meeting to discuss full democracy for the District.
The meetings in Norton’s and Davis’ offices were amicable; the session in Hastert’s office resulted in our being led away in handcuffs.
The upcoming trial of David Barrows, Jill Blankespoor, Adam Eidinger, Anise Jenkins, Zoe Mitchell, Karen A. Szulgit and myself will be a test of the ability of D.C. citizens to petition their government for a redress of our grievances. The District’s lack of a vote in Congress means that the normal method of petitioning the federal government – lobbying our elected representatives – is effectively closed to us. Therefore, we must employ other means to be heard, such as taking our case directly to Congress.
Certain members would prefer that we remain on the sidelines while our non-voting delegate is marginalized and our letters and petitions are ignored. This makes it all the more necessary to step outside established channels of action – as our revolutionary forebears did in 1776 to protest an earlier form of undemocratic colonial rule.
There has been a further development: In early December the Senate approved the budget autonomy bill. Now, the movement must carry the message to the next venue of action – the House of Representatives – after Congress reconvenes on Jan. 20. By that time, nearly four months will have passed without final congressional approval of the 2004 D.C. budget.
D.C. residents can show their support for full democracy for the District and for our right to petition Congress for the same by filling the gallery at the trial and by attending a pre-trial rally for the defendants to be held at 8 a.m. Jan. 27 at D.C. Superior Court, 500 Indiana Ave. NW. Financial support also will be needed. Visit www.standupfordemocracy.org or call (202) 232-2500 ext. 1 to learn more about how you can help to Free D.C.
Bill Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C Coalition. Contact him at email@example.com.
Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator