Voting rights activists scored another victory last week as the Senate cleared the way to expand House membership for the first time in nearly 100 years. The expansion includes representation in Washington for the District of Columbia’s nearly 600,000 residents. Similar attempts to provide DC residents with a vote at the federal level failed by only three votes in 2007. With a population equal to or greater than the states of Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, one wonders why providing these citizens the opportunity to participate in government to the fullest extent would be the subject of a previous filibuster and would continue to stir controversy.
Those opposed to the measure such as Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona (R) argue that DC residents do have representation as members of the House oversee appropriations for the district. Opponents to the legislation have promised an immediate legal challenge once the bill is passed. They argue that residents of the District of Columbia can gain a House seat only by Constitutional Amendment. They point to Constitutional language that requires House representatives be chosen “by the people of the several states.”
Supporters counter that mere oversight does not provide full representation for those residents who pay the nation’s second-highest per capita taxes for both residents and businesses. They also note that it is a compromise bill as it makes no provision for representation in the Senate. Both arguments have solid legal footing, and the battle that is lining up will be great fun for Constitutional scholars. Unfortunately neither address the underlying political issue of representation for DC’s residents: race.
A significant majority of DC residents are African-American. District of Columbia voters trend heavily Democrat, and it is no surprise then that the staunch opposition has sprung squarely from the hard-right base of the Republican party who stand to lose the most with DC enfranchisement. This country’s history systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans most certainly informs the current debate in Congress.
The District of Columbia has tried in the past for voting rights in Congress and each attempt has been met by hard opposition from the right. In the interim the city languished in record violence, substandard schools, and entrenched poverty. Those residents pay taxes towards federal programs to alievate, or at least attempt to ameliorate, those ills, yet have no say in directing funds to their own community. A step towards a voice in Congress is a step toward providing those citizens the voice necessary to address these ills and take charge of their community.