Rant in progress.
On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The law helped secure participation in the democratic voting process for citizens of the United States, particularly African-Americans. The African-American franchise was still a largely contested issue (particularly in the deep South) despite the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870. (Side note: It's truly pathetic that we passed a Constitutional Amendment in 1870 to give black people the vote, and yet the idea was still so roundly resisted almost 100 years after that.)
Still, some 40 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, one significant populace remains effectively voteless in the United States Congress: citizens of the District of Columbia.
It's an issue that rarely resonates outside the Beltway, but that's mostly because it's viewed as typical Beltway politics. But it's more than "politics as usual"; the District is the home of over half a million people, who are freakishly impotent when it comes to self-governance.
Most recently, the issue was starkly highlighted when Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX) introduced legislation to rename a prominent street in the District (16th Street NW) "Ronald Reagan Boulevard." I have my own thoughts about former President Reagan, including whether naming a prominent government building in the District and the local airport after him were appropriate, but those thoughts are immaterial at this point. The point is that the U.S. Congress currently has the power to interfere with the way the District is governed at will. This is simply unacceptable.
A body consisting of 535 people -- all of whom are elected by people outside the country -- can drastically change living conditions for those of who live in the District. Congress has final approval over our budget process as well as any legislation the D.C. Council might pass. If they don't like a bill -- despite the fact that our democratically-elected legislative body wants it -- they could block its implementation.
And it's not just a dormant power that Congress doesn't use. The residents of the District are used as political pawns far more frequently than most people realize. It's not just limited to renaming public streets and airports.
For example, on the District's ballot one year was a question to determine the extent of public support for medical marijuana laws. First, Congress fought against having that question put on the ballot at all. Losing that fight, Congress withheld federal funds which would have been used in counting the votes. The District had to raise the funds to count those votes on its own.
By the way, the results of that vote were that the District overwhelming supports permitting marijuana use to alleviate medical problems. Will we ever see a law to that effect in the District? Most likely not, because if we tried to enact that law, Congress would bat us down.
Metro, the public transportation system which serves the DC area (including Virginia and Maryland suburbs), came under federal attack when some ads showed up on the subway advocating the decriminalization of marijuana. The ad space was provided for free as part of Metro's "public interest" program. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) objected to the ads, and, like an angry parent to a disobedient child, threatened to withhold federal appropriations to the District as punishment for Metro's trangression. Notice how he couldn't affect Maryland's or Virginia's contributions to Metro. But because he could take hold the District's pursestrings, he managed to bully them into dropping its "public interest" program completely.
Similarly, the District has had a law on the books prohibiting the private ownership of handguns for decades now. And a majority of the citizens of the District like it that way. But, especially with a Republican Congress on the Hill, that law is in danger of being repealed by people who couldn't give a crap about what the residents in this area want.
We in the District have no autonomy that way, and people who are not at all accountable to us can literally take our lives into their own hands. Can you imagine how the State of Nebraska would react if someone from outside their state stepped into their legislature and said "I know you passed this law, and it reflects the will of your people, but I don't like it, so it will not take effect"? Alaska? California?
In our civics classes in grade school, we learned what a great democracy this country is. We learned that we vote for people to represent us and make laws for us that reflect our views and our values. And we said that, if those people broke our confidence and voted made laws that were against our interest, our redress was to vote them out of office. We in the District have no such luxury. Any senator or representative can get the ball rolling to change things that govern the day-to-day lives of our citizens, but if they vote against our personal interests, we cannot stop them. I cannot effectively mount a campaign to vote Rep. Bonilla out of office, for example. He has no incentive whatsoever to take into account how we District residents feel when he raises his stupid idea of naming yet another public facility after Ronald Reagan.
The District does have one person on the Hill (currently Eleanor Holmes Norton). She is a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. She can speak during floor debates, but she cannot vote.
This despite the fact that District residents pay federal taxes like the rest of the country, sends its native sons and daughters off to war, and plays host to the seat of power in this country.
There has been a long struggle now to get representation for the District. Bills have been introduced in this Congress to grant at least some relief. H.R. 398 and S. 195 are known as the "No Taxation Without Representation Act," and have been introduced in the House by Del. Norton and in the Senate by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-VT). Another bill, the DC FAIR Act, HR 2043, has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA). (Read the text of these bills by entering their bill numbers here -- I can't seem to provide direct hyperlinks to the text of the bills.)
If you're still reading this, great. What can you do to help? Well, odds are, you're from an actual State, and you have voting representation in Congress. If you could take a few minutes from your day to please contact your Congressional representatives and tell them that you support full voting rights for citizens of the District. If you don't know who your representative are, you can search here for your representative and your senators.
Then tell your friends to do the same.
"One person, one vote" should be a sacrosanct principle in the United States by now. It's downright shameful that half a million people in this country are held hostage to people who don't care what they want. That must change.
For more information, please check out DC Vote. Thanks for reading this.
Monday, August 08, 2005
Rant in progress.