Davis Plans D.C. Voting-Rights Bill By Year’s End

Posted July 9, 2003 at 6:38pm

D.C. voting-rights advocates met formally Wednesday with House Government Reform Committee staffers to discuss a proposal by Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) that would create a full-fledged Representative for the District of Columbia.

“They’re very open to exploring various proposals with us,” said Walter Smith, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center, who attended the meeting.

Davis, whose panel oversees the District, did not attend the Wednesday meeting. But Smith said that committee staff discussed various proposals, including one to expand the House by two seats.

The expansion would remain in place until the 2010 Census is completed. Both the District and Utah, a Republican stronghold, would receive one seat.

“We take their word for it that they’ve come up with something they think they can gain support for,” said Smith, also a member of a task force appointed by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to examine the legal ramifications of a voting rights proposal.

Following the census, the House would contract back to 435 seats and the District would maintain its vote, a Davis spokesman said.

“We’ve expanded the House before, temporarily,” Davis said Wednesday. The House expanded briefly following the additions of Hawaii and Alaska to the union.

A constitutional amendment is not required to expand the House, and Davis said he plans to introduce legislation, rather than an amendment, which would be much tougher to pass.

“We’re trying to do this legislatively,” he said. “That shows we’re serious. Constitutional amendments are a joke.”

Congress passed a constitutional amendment in 1978 that would have given the District full voting representation, but it failed in 1985 after only 16 of the necessary 38 states ratified it.

Although House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) suggested Tuesday that creating a Representative could require a constitutional amendment, a spokesman declined to comment further on the yet-to-be-introduced bill.

“On issues like this, we let them go through regular order,” said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy.

Noting that he has not yet briefed DeLay or leadership members, Davis said, “It’s not fair to ask Tom about a proposal he hasn’t seen.”

In late June, Davis said on WAMU radio that he supported a voting Representative for the District. He plans to introduce legislation by the end of this year, according to an aide.

Davis spokesman David Marin stressed that multiple options are being considered for the legislation, and said the Virginia lawmaker plans to meet with House leaders, D.C. officials and interest groups, the Bush administration and others before formally introducing any bills.

“We’re taking this deliberately and slowly as a reflection of the importance of getting it right,” Marin said.

One option Marin said is not being considered is retrocession to Maryland. Along those lines, some voting-rights activists also object to counting the District’s vote in the electoral college with Maryland’s.

“We want to give the District the maximum voting representation permitted under the Constitution,” Marin said. “If we find out after doing the legal research that we’re doing right now, that constitutionally it’s impossible to do anything other than have the District’s population counted along with Maryland’s to achieve that goal, then we’ll certainly examine that.”

D.C. Shadow Rep. Ray Browne (D), a locally elected official who lobbies for voting rights and statehood, was critical of any connection to Maryland but called the proposal an “important first step.”

“It opens up all kinds of possibilities,” Browne said. “We had never thought about Utah. Who’s to say there’s not other possibilities we hadn’t thought about.”

Browne suggested that any potential change could eventually lead to the creation of at least one Senate seat for the District.

“If we could do this in the House by keeping it politically neutral, who’s to say that a few years from now, or whenever, that we couldn’t put a Senator in play?” he said.

Regardless of the immediate details of the bill, at least one voting-rights advocate said it would raise the specter of creating Representatives for the Delegates representing Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands, as well as the Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner.

However, District advocates have long relied on the argument that the city, unlike the territories, is qualified because its citizens pay federal taxes.

“We’ve always been sympathetic to folks from the territories but at the same time we’ve always said they are very different from the District in several ways,” Smith said. He also cited the District’s location and its history as part of the original 13 states, and added that the territories could be eligible for statehood.

“While a lot of folks in the District argue for statehood, a lot of people in Congress have said the District has a unique status, because it’s not a territory, it’s not a state, it’s not a state-in-waiting,” Smith added.

Guam Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D) suggests that representation could be based on citizenship, rather than on tax structure. Although Guam residents pay federal taxes, the money is directed to the island’s budget, which does not require Congressional approval as the District’s does.

“If the Delegate can vote because the House rules allow it, then other Delegates, island Delegates would be allowed to vote. The basis would be on citizenship,” Bordallo said.

“The Delegates should be replaced and be Representatives,” she added.

Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen (D), who represents an unincorporated territory, said the creation of a new seat for the District could open the door to allow a vote in the Committee of the Whole for the Delegates and Resident Commissioner. The four elected officials have a vote in committee, but have not a vote on the House floor since 1995.

However, she could not say whether it would prompt a campaign to create additional seats for the territories.

“We made a conscious decision back … a couple years ago to support [Norton’s] efforts without attaching ours to it,” Christensen said. “Certainly we would like to have as full representation as possible so I wouldn’t rule it out, but there are differences between an unincorporated territory and the District of Columbia.”

Suzanne Nelson contributed to this report.