Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A new president and more Democrats in Congress gives the D.C. House Voting Rights Act bill a better chance of passage this year, but it still will not survive the scrutiny of the courts, opponents of the legislation said Tuesday at a House hearing.

Tuesday marked the first congressional hearing in 2009 for the legislation, reintroduced earlier this month by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting House member, and there was fervent discussion from both sides of the issue.

“Today, out of all of the world´s democracies, there is only one national capital without full voting rights: this city full of monuments to democracy,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and longtime D.C. voting rights supporter, said before the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties.

Mr. Hoyer said he would schedule a full House vote in the coming weeks.

Proponents of the bill think the most recent election, which brought President Obama, a Democrat, to the White House and produced larger Democratic majorities in Congress, has paved the way to easy passage in the House and Senate. Mr. Obama supported a similar bill as a senator.

“I believe the stars are lining up in the District´s favor for the bill to win both House and Senate approval and the signature of our new president during this congressional session,” D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, said after the hearing.

The legislation would give one House vote to the District and a fourth to Utah, which narrowly missed getting an additional seat after the last U.S. census. Utah, which traditionally leans to the right politically, now has one Democrat and two Republicans in the House and is the next state slated to receive a new seat based on the last census.

A similar bill died in the Senate in 2007, falling three votes short of the 60 necessary for it to overcome a filibuster.

Though much of Congress says D.C. residents deserve a voting representative, the main disagreement is how to go about it.

Some supporters think Mrs. Norton and others should go further, requesting two senators and a House member for the District.

Critics say her bill goes against the Constitution, which states House members be chosen by “people of the several states.”

“There is no question that the Democrats have votes to approve this legislation, but the bill was born out of political expedience,” Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who testified at the hearing, told The Washington Times.

The 2007 bill, which is almost identical to the new one, was watered down in order to assuage dissenting Republicans. Now, with fewer Republicans standing in the way of the District receiving representation, Mrs. Norton should construct a more constitutionally sound plan, Mr Turley said.

“The reality is that the politics that led to this bill no longer exist, and they no longer have to adopt this unconstitutional approach. They have committed themselves to a course that will likely prove disappointing.”

Mrs. Norton said Mr. Turley’s testimony “failed to offer a principle that would distinguish a congressional bill for D.C. voting rights from the long pattern of treating D.C. as a state for purposes such as collecting federal income taxes by the Congress and the federal courts.”

One alternative would be passage of an amendment to allow unique representation for the District. While such amendments have failed in the past, the political makeup of Congress could give it a much better chance, observers say. Mr. Turley and others suggest that parts of the District retrocede into Maryland, giving its residents two senators and a House member.

“Each of those approaches would be unassailable from a legal standpoint,” Mr. Turley said.

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