Mr. Obama, Give D.C. The Vote, Now The nation's capital city, as it says on its license plates, endures "taxation without representation." Washington has no vote in the House or Senate. Barack Obama should use his inaugural address to demand that residents of his new home city receive the basic rights of citizens.
NPR logo Mr. Obama, Give D.C. The Vote, Now

Mr. Obama, Give D.C. The Vote, Now


This should be a no-brainer.

On Monday, Barack Obama moved to his new hometown, Washington, D.C. The nation's capital city, as it says on its license plates, endures "taxation without representation." Washington has no vote in the House or Senate.

On Tuesday, the first day of the new Congress, legislation was introduced to give D.C. one vote in the House. Sen. Barack Obama sponsored the same legislation last year, but it died in the Senate. As usual.

It is unimaginable that President Obama will not support "The D.C. Voting Rights Act" and sign it if it ever comes to his new desk in the Oval Office. But it is highly imaginable that recalcitrant Republicans and delinquent Democrats will find yet another way to deprive the citizens of the District basic democratic rights.

That is exactly why Obama should use his inaugural address to demand that D.C. be given the vote. He doesn't need to harp on it. He needs to get it done because it is inarguably the politically moral thing to do and because it has deep symbolic value.

Washington, D.C., is an African-American city. That's not all it is, of course, but it is that. In many ways, the black middle class was born in Washington, because the federal government was the biggest employer in town. But it is a city that had to struggle to get simple home rule just a few decades ago. And without representation in the federal government, it remains a second-class place, the last American colony, at least on the continent.

Obama can't tolerate that. The capital city he presides from can't have second-class citizens. By giving D.C. the vote, Obama can commit a clear and clean act of civic virtue that will be noticed nationally and internationally. It is action, not rhetoric; it is a change, not just the sound of change.

There are obviously other basic reasons to grant Washington residents the basic rights of citizens. (Me too, by the way; I live in the District.) We have more people than Wyoming, about 580,000. District residents pay some of the highest average federal taxes in the country. Seven young people who weren't represented in their Congress died as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As far as I can determine, no country that holds free elections has a capital city where the citizens have no representation.

Republicans have opposed D.C. voting rights simply because the city votes Democratic. But the proposed legislation would give an extra House seat to reliably Republican Utah.

I can't really tell you why Democrats haven't been able to get the vote for the District. I am told that there simply isn't much support for it across the country. I suppose that's right. I suppose there's no reason Nebraskans would want to go out of their way for a violent, elitist, "inside the beltway" minority city like Washington. Well, tough.

Some make contorted arguments that the Constitution demands that D.C. residents be denied representation in Congress. But since 1961, we have been graciously allowed to vote for president. So what's the deal? It is proper for Congress to act on this and for the courts to review. That's what would and should happen.

The truth is that we're patsies for being willing to settle for unequal representation in Congress. The District of Columbia should have the full rights of a state — two senators and representation in the House proportionate to our population. We shouldn't settle for one vote in the House; that's second class.

The new president will face few choices where issues that are absolutely fundamental to democracy, representative government and the rule of law are displayed so pristinely. He should act quickly, and he should bring on his rhetorical firepower. It will set the table nicely for dealing with the more complicated moral conflicts — for instance, one relating to the collision of national security and human rights. It won't always be so easy to do the right thing.