DC Vote Fine-Tunes Its Hill Strategy

Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:33pm

Less than a year ago, District residents seemed poised to get their first-ever Representative in Congress after decades of protests, political negotiating and repeated disappointment.

To voting rights advocates, the environment seemed perfect: A Democratic Congress paired with a new president who had once publicly supported the city’s goals. Within weeks of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) had reintroduced the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) had made the bill’s passage a “high priority.—

But four months ago, the bill’s progress came to a halt in the House thanks to an amendment that would create new, looser gun laws for the city. Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, conservative Democrats wouldn’t vote for an amendment-free bill, and D.C. officials wouldn’t settle for Congressionally imposed gun laws.

The bill’s supporters still hope to pass the legislation during the 111th Congress. But the political wrangling over the voting rights bill has also prompted local advocacy group DC Vote to broaden its efforts beyond the bill.

This summer, DC Vote’s board of directors officially extended its mission to include “home rule— issues that affect Washington, D.C.’s autonomy. Though the group’s focus will continue to be Congressional representation, officials will also energize its members whenever Members of Congress try to change city policy from the halls of the Capitol.

“We believe that with votes in the Congress, the District will be able to have a say in issues that matter but also have the power to prevent other Members of Congress from imposing their will on the city,— said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote. “However, as we’ve worked on this issue over the years, we have been forced to defend the city’s home rule rights.—

The fight over the voting rights act had put the conflict in sharp relief: In order to pass a bill giving the city Congressional representation, D.C. officials were forced to consider an amendment that stripped the city’s authority to pass its own gun laws.

In June, advocates decided the price was too high, and DC Vote began considering a larger mission.

“That was very important because they were slapped in the face by the NRA,— Norton said in a recent interview. “They saw wisely that equality and freedom for the District is not a one-issue matter.—

In fact, even if Congress passed the voting rights act, the federal government would still wield a great deal of power over the city. The voting rights act only gives the District a voting seat in the House; the Senate is left untouched, along with laws that allow Congress to review the city’s budget and legislation. For years, Norton has introduced bills to give the city budgetary and legislative autonomy, but they have never made it out of Congress.

The fate of the D.C. voting rights bill is similarly uncertain. Congress is poised for months of work on an array of legislation, while District officials seem to be stuck in a catch-22 on the bill. DC Vote has focused much of its efforts on changing the mind of Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.), who penned the provision that became the voting rights bill’s poison-pill amendment.

Norton said she has made progress in negotiations but declined to give any details. She scoffed at the idea that Congress’ full plate might thwart the bill’s chances.

“The notion that we can’t walk and chew gum at same time has been disproven repeatedly,— she said, later adding: “We have not been sitting on our hands for the past four months.—

Other D.C. issues where Congress may choose to inject itself are also on the horizon, however. D.C. Councilmember David Catania has said he plans to introduce a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the District. If passed, it promises to spark debate among Members of Congress, who have the power to veto any of the city’s laws.

In such scenarios, DC Vote will now pitch in with its 80 coalition partners, who can call on their members to write letters, visit Congressional offices and stage protests to try to prevent Congress from intervening.

“Within our city, within our coalition, we might have differences of opinions on, let’s say, guns and gay marriage, but we all agree that the proper venue to decide those issues is the city council,— Zherka said.

The city’s budget is another area where officials constantly battle Congressional interference. Recently, Democrats removed a few long-standing provisions from D.C.’s budget that, among other things, banned the city from holding a referendum on medical marijuana and using funds on needle exchange programs. That victory, however, wasn’t total: Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) attached an amendment that makes needle exchange programs within the city difficult, prohibiting them within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and a variety of other youth-oriented areas.

Such efforts, Zherka said, often “have to do with politics outside of D.C. and have nothing to do with politics within the District of Columbia.— DC Vote’s mission is to change that culture — by protecting the city’s home rule day to day and eventually by helping the city become a full-fledged state.

“Ultimately Washingtonians need to be in their own jurisdiction, not overseen by Congress,— Zherka said. “We recognize that’s not going to be easy, and we recognize that there’s going to be some resistance to that and also that it will take a lot of time.—