The Nation's Capital Lobbies for a Vote in Congress On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow the residents of Washington, D.C., to elect a full member to Congress for the first time in American history.
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The Nation's Capital Lobbies for a Vote in Congress

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The Nation's Capital Lobbies for a Vote in Congress

The Nation's Capital Lobbies for a Vote in Congress

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From voting in Nigeria to the struggle for voting rights, right here in the District of Columbia. This past week, residents of the nation's capital won a victory in their battle for representation in Congress. To this day, Washington's half a million-plus residents have only a single non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

By Thursday, the House passed a bill that would give the district its first full seat in Congress. The District of Columbia, of course, is not a state or part of a state. And the bill's Republican opponents cite Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which declares that members of the House should be chosen, quote, "by the people of the several states."

Thursday's House debate was heated especially when California Republican David Dreier tried to interrupt the D.C. delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Representative ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, District of Columbia): I will not yield, sir. The District of Columbia has spent 206 years yielding to people who would deny them the vote. I yield you no ground. Not during my time.

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): I haven't yielded you (unintelligible).

Rep. NORTON: You have had your say, and your say has been that you think that people who live in your capital are not entitled to a vote in their House. Shame on you.

ELLIOTT: And Representative Norton joins me in the studio now. Welcome to the program.

Rep. NORTON: Oh, glad to be here.

ELLIOTT: That was a very passionate speech you made on Thursday. How long have you been working to get D.C. a vote in the Congress?

Rep. NORTON: Well, I've been in the Congress for 16 years and I've worked to get the district democracy by whatever means necessary, to have a statehood. I've had a bill for a vote in the House and the Senate. And this is a bill, a minimalist bill, actually, for a vote only in the people's House, which is all we can get at this time. Shame on us, but that's all we can get. After 206 years we'll take it.

ELLIOTT: You know, a federal district court in D.C. has ruled on this issue and said that the Constitution makes clear, quoting now, "how deeply constitutional representation is tied to the structure of statehood." How do you get around this argument from your opponents that this bill is unconstitutional?

Rep. NORTON: Well, the courts have not, in fact, ruled on this specific bill. This bill is about a House vote only. And we get around it because the Congress and the Supreme Court itself has, quote, "gotten around it." The district has been ruled, has been understood to be a state for virtually all purposes - for treaties, for the presidia of verse(ph), diction(ph). The full understanding of what the frameworks(ph) were about was not to deprive the people, any people. These were the people who vote, who made a revolution for representation.

The full understanding was that they didn't want the district to be in a state so they made it the District of Columbia. And, in fact, assumed and in the words of the Constitution and the first Congress that wants those who lived here and understand where they live before, they were then residents in Maryland or Virginia.

Signers of the Constitution for Maryland and Virginia contributed the land. Think about it. Would they have contributed the land to form the District of Columbia where their residents were then residing, if in fact they were agreeing to deprive them of the vote right after they had staged a revolution for representation? Hardly.

And we've had very conservative constitutional scholars. For example, former Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Starr to testify the bill is constitutional. Viet Dihn, Professor Viet Dihn, President Bush's former point man, assistant attorney general for constitutional matters in the Ashcroft Justice Department. I think we're on very solid footing.

ELLIOTT: So you'd like to see this get through and if it ends up in the courts, let that court decide this issue.

Rep. NORTON: Virtually every bill ends up in the court in one form or fashion. So we're not afraid of a court suit.

ELLIOTT: You know, now in order to win passage of your bill in the House, you had to make a little bit of a political deal with the Republicans because they were concerned that a largely Democratic city would be gaining a seat, so you offered you another seat to the State of Utah, which is a Republican state.

Rep. NORTON: My good friend Tom Davis, a Republican, is the co-sponsor of this bill, and it was his idea to bring a Republican state along. And he brought the most Republican state in the union and that was the state that will particularly agree. Because they believe that they should have gotten an extra seat in the last census because we had - they had some missionaries out of state who weren't counted.

And as Governor Jon Huntsman said when he came to testify: Look, we feel aggrieved for 10 years. We can't imagine what it must be like for the District of Columbia to be without a vote for 200 years.

ELLIOTT: Well, now this is moving on to the U.S. Senate where vote counters have said you have an obstacle there. That it's unlikely that the Senate would pass this. And even if the Senate does pass it, President Bush has said he would veto the legislation. What would be your backup plan?

MS. NORTON: Well, not to worry. First of all, we're going to make it. The reason we're going to make it is because we have two Republican Utah senators who know that the people of Utah desperately want this seat five years ahead when they made all the words(ph) (unintelligible) because all kinds of benefits comes the state by getting a new seat.

And moreover, it should be easier than it's been on the House because the tradition of the Senate is that if a matter affects only one state, it doesn't cost any money, this kind of bill is passed by senatorial courtesy.

ELLIOTT: Why has this been so hard to achieve?

MS. NORTON: It's been hard to achieve for reasons having to do with proprietorship, in the sense that, you know, this somehow was the possession of the Congress. To frankly raise, the city had a large African-American population in the 19th century. It was a majority black until the late 1950s. But I have quoted from Alabama senator who said the only way now to keep these people - these Negroes from getting the voters to deny, and to quote him, "every single human being who lives in the district the vote." Today, of course, it has more to do with politics than anything else.

ELLIOTT: Well, NPR is not the only broadcaster that seems interested in covering this D.C. voting rights issue. I saw you recently on the comedy channel on "The Colbert Report" talking about this. Let's listen to it a little bit.

(Soundbite of "The Colbert Report" episode)

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): I am going to nail you here. I checked your voting record. You have not voted once while you've been in office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: You want to defend that?

MS. NORTON: Yes. I think now I'm going to be on Colbert for the fourth time coming up. And you know what? Colbert has done more than any single human being to let our citizens in this country know that we don't have voting rights.

If 82 percent say we should have voting rights, that same poll says something close to 75 percent thought we already had it. That's the most frustrating, particularly when we have young men report in every war including the war that established the republic, that's why our license plates say, taxation without representation, because we're the last place left with taxation without representation.

ELLIOTT: Eleanor Holmes Norton is the Washington, D.C., delegate to the House of Representatives. Thank you for coming in.

Ms. NORTON: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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