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Finally, D.C. Gets Some Respect

For once, a roomful of members of Congress managed to debate the shame of this democracy with only one cavalierly telling half a million people that if they really want voting rights, all they need do is move.

For the record, that brilliant character is Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose considered view on whether D.C. residents should be represented in Congress is that they "only have to move five miles to register their vote."

Not long ago, that kind of snide quip was about as serious as the discussion over granting Washingtonians the vote ever got. Times, like tenancy at 1600 Pennsylvania, change: When a House subcommittee held a hearing on D.C. voting rights Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans alike spoke of the injustice of leaving residents of the nation's capital with no voice in decisions over how their money is spent and when their lives might be put at risk.

Even hard-core opponents of adding a House seat for the District no longer make fun of the constitutional flaw that leaves Washingtonians in the unique position of paying federal income tax, serving in the military and yet having no vote.

"Whoever put 'Taxation without Representation' on the license plates of Washington, D.C., it's worked," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). "It's made an impression on me." (Credit Foggy Bottom resident Sarah Shapiro in 2000, with an assist from then-Mayor Tony Williams.)

Gohmert still thinks that adding a D.C. seat in the House by a simple vote of Congress is unconstitutional, but he feels compelled to embrace the larger goal and to offer an alternative: Exempt Washingtonians from paying federal income tax until a constitutional amendment can be passed granting the city the vote.

I wouldn't start canceling the withholding on your paychecks. But the fact that someone like Gohmert no longer tried to score points with folks back home by ripping the District is important progress. So is the shape of Tuesday's debate, in which Republicans turned to a liberal law professor for constitutional cover, while Democrats found academic support from strict constructionist scholars such as Viet Dinh and Ken Starr.

The election of a president who has supported D.C. voting rights and the fact of a black president in what is still a majority-black city add up to a new attitude on this issue.

But hold on: President Obama made it clear during a visit to this newspaper that although he supports a D.C. seat, "this takes on a partisan flavor, and, you know, right now I think our legislative agenda's chock-full." Meaning, don't hold your breath.

Despite euphoria among many Democrats about the new president changing the debate on the District, there remain serious constitutional questions about how to get the job done.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley called the extra seat idea "the most premeditatedly unconstitutional act by Congress in decades. A great wrong has been done to the District, but great wrongs are not righted by violating the Constitution."

Members of Congress are elected, our founding fathers wrote, "by the people of the several states," and the District, by definition, is no state.

Oh, please, say lawyers on the other side. "Yes, 'states' means 'states,' " Dinh said. But he pointed to a long list of laws, including those regulating commerce or guaranteeing the right to a jury trial, that have long applied to D.C. residents even though the constitutional foundation for those laws rests on language about "states."

Truth be told, the District government plays this game all the time, arguing that laws it doesn't like don't apply here because they're just for states, then begging to be treated like a state if there's some nice benefit the city could get from assuming that status.

Two years ago, only 22 Republicans broke with their party to support a bill that would have added seats for the Democratic-leaning District and for Republican-leaning Utah, a scheme concocted by Fairfax Republican Tom Davis to make the initiative palatable to both parties. That bill passed the House but failed to win the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster in the Senate.

This time, the majority in the House for the extra seat may be larger. And even if Senate passage remains problematic, the shift in rhetoric is real. Congress passed a constitutional amendment for D.C. voting rights in 1978, when the national mood was similarly defined by a bad economy and a powerful sense that it was time to do the right things. The amendment failed to win ratification, winning approval from 16 of the 36 needed states, but that hurdle doesn't loom as large in this era of good feeling.

This president isn't likely to put the D.C. vote near the top of his agenda, but his mere presence may be turning the tide toward righting a 200-year-old wrong.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  January 29, 2009; 8:43 AM ET
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I've lived in DC for 19 years and I am so incredibly tired of hearing people talk about statehood for the District. It just ain't gonna happen--the Republicans in Congress will see to that. Likewise, they will not rest until the current plans to give the District a vote in the House go down in constitutional flames. Retrocession to Maryland and becoming voting residents of that state is the only remotely realistic hope we have of getting full representation in BOTH houses of Congress. So why have so many in the District put all their eggs into the statehood basket and why is the subject of retrocession an almost verboten subject for our city leaders?

Posted by: MrDarwin | January 29, 2009 11:21 AM

As a DC resident and homeowner, I would be VERY happy with Rep. Gohmert's alternative of exempting Washingtonians from paying federal income tax until a constitutional amendment can be passed granting the city the vote.

I can't imagine how much I would be able to sell my house for if people knew they could stop paying income tax by establishing residence here.

Posted by: dunlaing1 | January 29, 2009 11:42 AM

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