Democracy begins at home, says Washington DC

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Perhaps no capital city in the world fits as uncomfortably into its surrounds as Washington, DC. This overwhelmingly liberal enclave is governed, and taxed, directly by a conservative Congress in which it has no voting representation.

The paradoxical arrangement – under which the half-million residents of the capital of the world’s most powerful democracy are marooned without democratic representation – originated in the early days of the republic when lawmakers keen to shield the federal government from influence of any single state created an independent capital city, ruled directly by Congress.

The city has long chafed against this arrangement, and as sharp-eyed visitors will note, “Taxation Without Representation” – which the American Revolutionaries equated with tyranny – appears as a city motto on DC licence plates. In 2006, Washingtonians are quick to point out, the district paid the nation’s highest per-capital federal taxes.

Moreover, in recent years the Republican-controlled Congress has foisted upon the district socially conservative policies on sexual education, Aids prevention, and gun control. These moves have been controversial in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, where the rates of Aids growth and homicide routinely top national rankings.

Yet with the promotion of democracy now at the centre of US foreign policy, decades of conservative opposition to granting the district a voting congressman may finally be weakening.

Recent legislation crafted by Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s non-voting Democrat delegate to Congress, and Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican congressman, would grant the city a voting member of the House of Representatives. Because this person would probably be a Democrat – in 2004 95 per cent of DC’s presidential ballots went for John Kerry – the bill also approves an additional congressman to represent the reliably Republican state of Utah.

“It’s a basic civil rights issue,” says Mr Davis. “The people in the nation’s capital who pay taxes, who die for our country, shouldn’t they have voting representation in the Congress?”

Opponents say only a constitutional amendment could give congressional votes to DC. “Despite the good intentions of this legislation, the constitutionality of the proposal must take precedent over any other political motives,” wrote Katherine Mitchell, a Republican congresswoman and one of four lawmakers to vote against the Davis-Norton proposal. DC advocates counter that the constitution does not explicitly deny congressional representation for DC.

Yet voting rights activists are sharply divided among themselves. While groups such as DC Vote – which lauded the Norton-Davis legislation as an “incremental step” – call for Senate and House representation but not outright statehood, the DC Statehood Green party demands the latter and considers the Norton-Davis bill a weak concession.

There is also a small number of activists who propose returning the city’s non-federal lands to the state of Maryland, giving DC residents voting representation through that state’s congressional delegation.

The current push for DC voting rights is not the first. In 1961, the city won the right to participate in presidential elections, and in 1973 the district was granted a locally elected mayor and city council. But since then all proposals and amendments to grant congressional votes to DC have failed.

Prospects for the current legislation are uncertain, though in mid-May the House committee on government reform passed it by a resounding 24-9 vote. Support was bipartisan, while opposition came solely from Republican lawmakers. Further progress depends on approval by the House judiciary committee, which has promised to take up the bill but has not said when.

For supporters of DC voting rights, the Bush administration’s foreign policy goals lend added urgency to passing the bill.

“We are spending billions of dollars to bring democracy to Baghdad and Kabul,” said Congressman Davis. “Shouldn’t we have full democracy in the US capital, the capital of the free world?”

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