President Harry S. Truman called attention to the District of Columbia’s fight for self-determination in his 1946 State of the Union address, and again in ’50 and ’52.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower followed suit in 1953, and repeated his call for granting D.C. citizens the right of suffrage to joint sessions of Congress in three subsequent years.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress in 1966, he also made reference to the District’s struggle for increased autonomy.
It was an isolated mention in his 5,547-word speech. Johnson tacked “home rule for the District of Columbia” on the end of a list of three Senate-passed bills he wanted the House to take action on.
But those seven words equal more lip service than President Barack Obama has ever given to the federal city during his five addresses on the state of the union.
“The president has neglected once again to find three or four words to say about the disempowerment of the District of Columbia,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told CQ Roll Call after Tuesday night’s address.
Like most Democrats, Norton was pleased with much of Obama’s speech. His announcement of an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees at least $10.10 an hour “frankly thrilled” Norton, who has been pushing Congress to raise wages for low-income federal workers. She was also happy that the president voiced support for a broader minimum wage increase, even if it is more than a dollar shy of the increase District officials recently signed into law.
The fact that Obama failed to breathe a word about the disenfranchisement of the more than 630,000 residents of her district though, came as a blow to Norton.
“I wrote to the president,” she said. “I sent him speeches of former presidents who had spoken up for the District all during the time we were trying to get Home Rule.”
President Jimmy Carter’s 1981 State of the Union speech is the most recent and most revolutionary example of advocacy for D.C. Carter lamented that, despite close cooperation between his administration and that of Mayor Marion Barry, the states had not yet ratified a constitutional amendment granting D.C. voting representation in Congress.
“It is my hope that this inequity will be rectified,” Carter said. “The country and the people who inhabit Washington deserve no less.”
This year, Norton had hoped her pleas to senior White House officials might work.
“I could not be more disappointed,” she said in Statuary Hall after the speech. “It wouldn’t take him a full sentence.”
District officials, including Mayor Vincent Gray, doubted in advance that they would hear any reference to statehood or budget autonomy in the president’s speech. So did House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is sponsoring a bill that would grant D.C. increased budget autonomy.
“I expect the president will talk about doing everything by executive order, thus making himself an effective dictator,” Issa told CQ Roll Call.
Norton isn’t done pressing Obama on the issue. Just as she was convinced Obama’s adoption of the “Taxation Without Representation” plates on his motorcade might mean a mention was coming in 2013, she has reason to hope 2015 will be the District’s year.
“I’m going to try sending him some words next time,” she said.