- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

Something that is democratic need not be constitutional, and vice versa. While the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times, the bedrock of democracy in the free world is set in stone.

Constitutional, according to Webster’s, means “established by or operating under a constitution; of or proceeding from the basic structure or nature of a person or thing; of or relating to one’s physical makeup; a walk taken regularly for one’s health.”

Democracy, according to Webster’s, means “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives; a political or social unit that has such a government; the common people, considered as the primary source of political power; majority rule; the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.”

The above semantics duly noted, is the fundamental human rights issue regarding the nonvoting status of the taxpaying residents of the capital of the free world one of constitutionality or of democracy?

“The only question left to Congress is to declare which side it is on when it comes to the right to vote,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said yesterday.

The representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress, as well as the chief executive and the jurists, can distract the debate all they want about the constitutionality, or lack of such, when it comes to granting piecemeal voting rights to more than 500,000 Americans in the District of Columbia.

But these elected officials haven’t a leg to stand on when it comes to denying democracy to their fellow citizens. There are no excuses, no legal arguments and no political machinations to explain this embarrassing and hypocritical situation. Here we have bipartisan bickering by factions of grown men and women, fighting furiously among themselves about waging war in the name of democracy all around the globe, but they can’t figure out how to extend the inalienable rights to their fellow Americans who live and work a good morning’s constitutional from their hallowed halls.

This week, as this nation marks the fifth year of an unpopular war ostensibly to bring democracy to the Iraqi people, the House is set to vote on a bill that will right the constitutional wrong that has denied D.C. residents a vote in that congressional chamber since the 1800s.

In rare act of bipartisanship, Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, introduced legislation months ago to bring the District of Columbia Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act to a vote.

The Democrat-leaning District would get one vote in the House and Republican-leaning Utah would get an additional vote, as well as another vote in the Electoral College. The District still would not get a vote in the Senate, but that’s another issue for another time. Having missed the opportunity the last time they were in the majority, the Democrat-controlled Congress has made good on its campaign promise to bring the D.C. voting rights bill to a vote early in the session. It passed two House hurdles last week when it was voted out of two committees.

However, the committees voted only after much pontification, posturing and politically motivated drivel about the “constitutionality” of the measure.

The latter arguments are merely delaying tactics. “It’s the argument of last refuge,” as Mrs. Norton says.

Short-lived was the jubilation. Already, the crushing word has come down from on high that the White House opposes the bill on the basis of its questionable constitutionality.

Although it is still not clear whether President Bush would veto the legislation if it passes, the foreboding notice from the executive branch definitely pours cold water on democracy’s progress in the District.

“There is no reason for the president to veto legislation extending the basic human right of representation to the people of his own capital,” Mrs. Norton said. “With District residents among the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other residents here paying taxes to support our government, it is unthinkable that this or any president would cast one of his few vetoes to deny our citizens representation.”

Nonetheless, Mrs. Norton remains optimistic. Legal scholars on both sides of the political spectrum are in disagreement about whether this voting-rights measure will stand or fail on wording in the U.S. Constitution.

Proponents argue that the so-called “District clause” gives Congress unlimited control in D.C. affairs. And, so far, Congress has had no problems exercising that oversight. Opponents argue that the Constitution grants voting rights only to “states,” and the District is, unarguably, not a state.

Yet, it is for the legislative branch to enact legislation; it is for the judicial branch to determine the legal and constitutional challenges to the laws enacted.

“Ultimately, the branch of government in whose hands this bill will finally rest is the judicial branch,” Mrs. Norton predicted. “The House, the Senate and the president will be judged not by the final outcome but by whether they exercise the obligation they alone have … to grant the vote to the citizens of the District of Columbia.”

If not now, when? Congress cannot afford to lose this moment on semantics when a bedrock principle is at stake.

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