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Commentary
Should we settle for one-third of a loaf?
(Published May 29, 2006)

By BILL MOSLEY

Now that there is a bill for congressional representation in the District of Columbia that's actually moving forward in Congress, what should D.C. residents make of it?

On May 11, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the "D.C. Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act of 2006," a reworked version of a bill that Davis introduced a year ago. As with the earlier bill, the measure would simultaneously give the District a voting seat in the House of Representatives and increase Utah's House delegation from three to four members. The reworked bill would permanently enlarge the House from 435 to 437 seats, instead of later shrinking the House back to 435 seats as the earlier bill would have done, a change made to increase support by ensuring that no state would lose seats. The new bill also would make the new Utah member an at-large representative of the entire state, rather than carve out a new congressional district a change made to allay fears that the predominately Republican Utah legislature would then redistrict the state's only Democratic representative out of a job.

Norton joined Davis in introducing the bill, even though she has a bill of her own before the House one to give the District not only a vote in the House but also two voting senators, putting D.C. on an equal footing with the states. Nevertheless, Mayor Anthony Williams and most members of the D.C. City Council were quick to greet the Davis-Norton bill with hosannas.

When they announced the bill, Davis and Norton said they believed it stood a decent chance of passage. A week later, the House Committee on Government Reform which Davis chairs endorsed the bill, but it still requires the approval of the House Judiciary Committee, where prospects are cloudier.

But should it pass? Why is Norton turning from her demand for full representation to one that would leave the District with less representation than the states?

The answer: practical politics. There is no chance that the Republicans who control both houses of Congress would simply create a new House seat and two Senate seats for the overwhelmingly Democratic District. By not seeking any representation in the Senate and by splitting the difference in the House adding a likely Democratic seat for the District and adding a probable Republican seat in Utah members would have nothing to lose by supporting the bill. They could even pat themselves on the back for helping D.C. win a measure of representation.

However, District residents should ask Delegate Norton, Mayor Williams and members of the D.C. council -- all of whom are backing the bill as at least an incremental step forward: Could passage of this bill for partial representation derail the campaign for full representation and full democratic rights for the District?

Despite the bill's title, there's nothing "equal" about this representation the bill doesn't provide the District with representation in the Senate, nor does it include any plans to do so. This would be a distinct step backwards from Norton's original bill to provide full representation in both houses. There are, to be sure, bills pending in Congress to make the District a part of Maryland meaning that as things stand, "the stars are aligning" (to use Davis' phrase) to possibly expunge D.C. from the map.

Moreover, passing a bill for partial representation lets Congress off the hook too easily. Davis and other members could declare the D.C. problem solved and move on to other business. Will local officials and activists exhaust their energies on achieving representation in the House, only to be stuck without a Senate vote for years to come just as we won "home rule" in 1974 only to still lack full control over our own budgets and legislation 32 years later?

Possibly the greatest harm posed by representation in the House alone would be to undercut the District's ability to use the international arena to demand full democracy. Just under a year ago, D.C. activists persuaded the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting here in Washington to adopt a resolution criticizing the United States for denying congressional voting representation to the District. But the enactment of the Davis-Norton bill would muddy the waters for future such efforts. It would be easier for the United States to argue that it complies with international rights standards because the District has some voting representation even if unequal, watered-down representation. If we compromise a little, we could lose all our moral authority.

Davis and Norton argue that this is the best bill that could be enacted right now. But the Republicans aren't going to control Congress forever or possibly for very long, judging from recent polls. If one House seat is the best we can do today, might we not do much, much better under a Democratic Congress especially with all possible moral leverage at our disposal?

Tim Cooper of the organization Worldrights has a good idea put the bill before the voters of the District to ask them whether they're willing to settle for less than half a loaf now with no promise of anything more in the future. After all, in 1980 D.C. citizens voted for statehood would they consider the Davis-Norton bill a positive step toward their declared goal, or a blind alley leading nowhere?

Let's not be so quick to jump aboard this bandwagon.

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Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. Coalition. Contact him at billmosley@comcast.net or (202) 232-2500 ext. 3.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator