At a Tuesday night holiday party at their modest Dupont Circle headquarters, employees and guests of the advocacy group DC Vote toasted the evening with wines labeled “Statehood,” “A Vote in Congress” and “I Demand the Vote.”
Guests laughed about the double entendre, asking one another, “Would you like A Vote in Congress? Would you like Statehood?”
But advocates for full voting rights in Washington, D.C., don’t have much to celebrate.
With sizable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, their agenda rose in the 111th Congress — only to be shot down.
“It looked like they were going to be the golden years of the D.C. democracy movement,” DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said. “We came to this Congress with modest but important steps to full citizenship for D.C. residents and we were slapped down.”
Prospects for full voting rights for D.C.’s Congressional representative died after gun advocates attached an amendment to the bill that would have barred the District from prohibiting people from carrying guns in public.
“We don’t have any illusions about D.C. voting rights being able to move in this next Congress, at least in the House,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said.
Advocates are also concerned that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — a stalwart opponent of D.C. autonomy — may be installed as head of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that deals with the District.
Still, advocates are infused with a steely resolve, Zherka said, shelving his inches-thick folder of new protest ideas.
“Up until now, we’ve done fairly traditional advocacy efforts, and they’ve taken us relatively far but were not sufficient to create urgency,” he said. “I think the lesson we’ve learned is that it’s going to take a lot more. It’s going to take, really, over time, a radicalization of the movement.”
In the past, advocates paired with Utah Republicans to hammer out a deal that would give the District a voting Representative and Utah another. But after the 2010 census numbers are released, Utah is expected to gain another Representative in Congress anyway. Zherka and Norton said another state that loses seats in Congress or narrowly misses out on gaining a Representative could be a partner for a similar deal in the future.
But the movement may have to take a few steps back before it can move forward.
They’ve already compromised on a bill to allow the District and the territories to place one statue each in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, opting to bring the Republican version to the floor this week instead of the Democratic version, which would have allowed the District to have two statues.
It was unclear as of press time whether the measure would pass, but it did have Republican support. “It’s reasonable,” said incoming House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who introduced the GOP version in committee. “I just didn’t want the suggestion that they’re states. They’re not.”
Another early indicator of how Republicans view the issue may materialize later this month in a new House rules package.
Zherka said he expects House Republicans to strip Norton’s vote when the House convenes in Committee of the Whole. Republicans did away with that voting privilege in 1995, and Democrats reinstated it upon retaking the majority in 2007.
“That would clearly be a slap in the face to taxpaying residents,” Norton said. “I would hope for some empathy with us on a vote that cannot make a difference in final passage.”
Zherka said advocates will also try to fight any efforts to resurrect appropriations riders banning, for instance, medical marijuana or abortion funding in the District. He said removing those provisions was the movement’s big win in the 111th Congress and advocates will ask the Senate or even the president to block bills that reinstate these restrictions on D.C.’s spending.
Attempts to impinge on D.C.’s representation could help stir up support for the cause, Zherka said, especially among new tea-party-endorsed Members-elect, whom the group will start reaching out to in January.
“A lot of those folks were elected based on the idea that the federal government shouldn’t intrude on localities,” he said. “If they’re being consistent, then they’ll feel the same way about the District as they do about any other jurisdiction.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.