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SIMMONS: D.C. and Obama

OP-ED:

Expectations are unreasonably high. Democrats are hoping the Obama administration and the House and Senate deliver the world. Republicans want Democrats to fail miserably so that they can come back in 2010 and 2012 and say we told you so. "Americans got what they asked for just as they did with [Bill] Clinton," a conservative told me. "In the midterms we can ride to the rescue."

Denizens of the nation's capital are espousing high hopes, too, and don't want their liberal hearts broken. Having helped to elect solid Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate and President-elect Barack Obama poised to run the White House, D.C. voters expect Congress to relinquish its constitutional mandate regarding D.C. affairs. Mayor Adrian Fenty, an Obama man, said so yesterday. Voting rights and congressional representation are two separate issues despite the fact that they have been legislatively intertwined since the 1973 Home Rule Act. It is not clear that Mr. Obama and Mr. Fenty, both lawyers, understand as much.

The District does not have senators and congressmen because a body of law says so. That fact has nothing to do with partisan politics, who is in the White House or which party is the majority party in Congress. The rhetoric often leads Americans to believe otherwise.

D.C. residents are portrayed as slaves to the whims of Congress. City Hall uses catchy slogans linking taxation and congressional representation to the push for voting rights. In presidential election years, D.C. folks would push the Democratic and Republican platform committees on the voting-rights issue, only to be disappointed when the Constitution prevailed intact.

Ever since Americans decided "We like Ike," statehood has been a common cause. But back then, when many of the 800,000-plus folks living in the District in the 1950s were pushing for full-fledged statehood, there were others who accepted the hybrid form of home rule that leaves D.C. perpetually stuck between self-governance and Neverland.

All this helps to explain why D.C. voting rights are center stage this post-election season. The hope is in the early months of the 111th Congress and the Obama administration, Democrats will finally walk the talk. As I listen and read, however, supporters of voting rights are seemingly absentminded. The body of law that directs Congress regarding the District is rooted in the U.S. Constitution.

The status of the District is rooted in what is commonly called the District Clause. The clause is part of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution and grants Congress the power to "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the District of Columbia. Legislation can change that, as the Supreme Court said in 2001. (There is no need for re-interpretation, just as there was no need for re-interpretation when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the Second Amendment grants gun rights to D.C. residents.)

The Constitution says that full congressional representation - i.e., two senators and apportioned House representation - only applies to "states." Sure, Congress can change those circumstances by amending the Constitution. But is that a priority?

Our economy is in shambles (and the flip-flop this week by Treasury chief Hank Paulson adds great weight to the evidence). We are spending $10 billion a month on one war front. The unemployment rolls are growing faster than states can print benefit checks. We owe China the shirts (and blouses) off our backs. We might do more than sing "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran." And because the almighty does what the almighty does, Christmas is around the corner.

Where exactly do D.C. voting rights fit in that equation?

The voting-rights crowd needs to calm down and lower its expectations. It also needs to start spreading the truth. President Eisenhower and President Bush's grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush, urged Congress to grant voting rights to D.C. The push followed the World War II population boom (more than 802,000 people were living here by the time Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in). Eisenhower called D.C. residents' lack of voting rights "unconscionable," and Prescott Bush took on the task of rounding up votes for passage of the 23rd Amendment. But the Democrats - repeat the Democrats - shot it down.

"Brother Barack" Obama and "Sister Nancy" Pelosi can only do so much. Don't be "Wild About Harry" Reid, either. All three know they won't have President Bush to kick around, so they are busy trying to get their house in order.

Mr. Fenty could earn deeper respect and support if he did the same.

Deborah Simmons is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. E-mail here.

About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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