U.S. Human Rights Violation Should Spur Action

Posted February 23, 2004 at 2:04pm

Recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a division of the Organization of American States, found the U.S. government in violation of international human rights law because the United States denies residents of Washington, D.C., voting representation in Congress.

At a time when we are actively promoting democracy abroad, we have yet to fulfill the promise of American democracy here at home.

The commission’s principal finding was that the rights of D.C. residents to vote and participate in the national government are “curtailed in such a manner as to deprive the Petitioners [D.C. residents] of the very essence and effectiveness of that right.”

The commission also found that the U.S. government could not articulate any justifiable reason for the denial of these fundamental human rights. Furthermore, the commission states that it “considers it significant that according to the information available, no other federal state in the Western Hemisphere denies the residents of its federal capital the right to vote for representatives in their national legislature.”

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was right last summer when he said: “It’s hard to make a straight-faced argument that the capital of the free world shouldn’t have a vote in Congress.” The irony is that Congress has the power to right this historic wrong. The leadership should work to adopt a bipartisan bill that ends the disenfranchisement of D.C. residents. The obvious choice would be to simply pass the Lieberman-Norton No Taxation Without Representation Act, which provides full Congressional voting representation for D.C. residents.

Davis is also developing a bill that would give D.C. a voting member of the House of Representatives by expanding by two the number of seats in that body. (Utah would get the other seat.) Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has introduced a bill that is also dependent on this approach and includes Senate representation through Maryland.

By providing a seat for D.C. and Utah, the party balance in the House is not altered, which is very likely a necessary component for a bipartisan bill to move forward in this Congress (much in the same way that Alaska and Hawaii, with different party leanings, were paired up and admitted as states). Undoubtedly, there are some in Congress who are concerned about the effects of redistricting in Utah. But there is a simple solution. The Utah Legislature previously adopted a four-district Congressional map that closely mirrors the districts of the current Members.

Congressional leaders in D.C. and political leaders in Utah should work out a public understanding that the previously designed redistricting map will be adopted should a bill pass Congress increasing the House by two seats. Legislation in Congress and in Utah could then proceed simultaneously.

But, there are also undoubtedly some in Congress who believe that people in our nation’s capital should remain disenfranchised. Let’s be clear: Over the past 30 years, both parties have supported voting representation for D.C. residents. In fact, Republican Sens. Bob Dole (Kan.), Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Strom Thurmond (S.C.) and others were joined by Democratic Senators such as Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) in 1978 in an overwhelming vote for a constitutional amendment that would have granted D.C. residents two Senators and House representation according to the population.

As the OAS decision makes clear, America’s “dirty little secret” is slowly being exposed all around the world. Increasingly, D.C.’s status will negatively impact our country’s push for the expansion of democracy abroad.

With bipartisan interest in resolving this issue, Congressional leaders should not let this moment pass. Congress should take action this year to end the human rights violation suffered by Americans living in the capital of the free world.

Ilir Zherka is executive director of DC Vote.