|WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., who has introduced District of Columbia voting rights legislation in the past five Congresses, delivered the following statement on the Senate floor Tuesday calling for full House voting rights for D.C. residents:
Mr. President, I rise today with my colleague, Senator Hatch of Utah, to urge all Senators to vote yes on the motion to proceed on this important legislation – “the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009.” This measure will give the citizens of the District of Columbia full voting rights in the House of Representatives, while adding a fourth Congressional seat for the state of Utah.
In 2007, this bill passed overwhelmingly in the House by a vote of 241-177, but fell a mere three votes short of gaining cloture in the Senate. That failure to proceed left the citizens of the District with the wholly unsought after distinction of being the only residents of a democratically ruled national capital in the world who have no say in how their nation is governed.
It’s time to right this injustice, just as this Congress historically has righted so many other voting injustices that stretched back to the very founding of our nation. I thank my friend, Senator Hatch, for his principled and steadfast support of this bill. His commitment to join in this historic change puts him up there with other great Republican Senators, like Everett Dirksen, who worked with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
I also want to thank my colleagues, Senators Carper, Dodd, Durbin, Feingold, Kennedy, Kerry, Landrieu, Lautenberg, Leahy, Levin, McCaskill, Mikulski, Sanders, Voinovich, Specter, and Schumer for joining as co-sponsors. And of course I want to thank our Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, for bringing this bill to the floor so swiftly in the 111th Congress. In the Senate, one of the greatest gifts you can get is floor time, and the priority he has placed on this measure speaks volumes of his commitment to civil rights.
And great thanks are due to District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has been a tireless champion of full representation for the citizens of the District. In her 10 terms in Congress, she has valiantly represented the citizens of the District, despite the fact that she has no vote on the House floor.
On that day President John Adams, who had only recently moved in to the still unfinished “Executive Mansion” – it was not known as the White House back then – gave his State of the Union Address to the opening of the second session of the 6th Congress, which was also moving into its offices in the unfinished Capitol building.
Adams opened his statement with a prayer that this new city – I quote – “be the residence of virtue and happiness [and] be forever held in veneration!” Adams then called on Congress to be wise stewards of this new city of roughly 8,000 people at the time. “You will consider it as the capital of a great nation advancing with unexampled rapidity in arts, in commerce, in wealth, and in population, and possessing within itself those energies and resources which, if not thrown away or lamentably misdirected, will secure to it a long course of prosperity and self-government.”
The District did, of course, grow into a robust and thriving capital. Today, with nearly 600,000 residents, the District has a population roughly equal to or greater than the states of Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.
But sadly its residents have not been allowed to be full participants in our democracy, not allowed to have voting rights in Congress of the United States. Let’s consider some of the fundamental injustices borne by the citizens of the District.
The people of the District have been the direct target of a terrorist attack, but they have no vote on how the federal government provides for their homeland security. Men and women of the District have fought bravely in our wars, going all the way back to the War of 1812, many giving their lives in defense of our country and its freedom. Yet they have no vote on the serious questions of war and peace, of funding conflicts, or providing for veterans when they return home.
The courts have found that Congress has the authority to tax the citizens and businesses of the District. And do they pay taxes! In 2007, residents and businesses of the District paid over $20 billion in federal taxes, which is more than 19 states and is the second highest per capita rate in the nation. This should be embarrassing to a nation whose founders rallied around the revolutionary slogan: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”
The District is the only jurisdiction in the country that must seek congressional approval – through the appropriations process – before spending locally generated tax dollars. And yet DC has no vote in that appropriations process.
Finally, Mr. President, if an American living in the 50 states outside of the District of Columbia were to move abroad, they would continue to be entitled to full voting representation in Congress – voting in their last state of residence — regardless of how long they remain out of the country. The only way they can lose that full congressional representation is if they were to either renounce their citizenship or return to the United States and live in Washington, DC. That just doesn’t make sense.
A broad range of constitutional experts like Judge Ken Starr and former Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh tell us that Congress’s power to provide voting rights to the District lies within this District Clause. And if Congress has this power, there is no excuse for not deploying it to end the injustice facing the District’s many residents with respect to voting representation in Congress.
There are some question marks lurking in the history of voting rights in the federal district. In the first 11 years after Maryland and Virginia ceded land for the capital in 1788 and 1789 respectively, residents of the ceded territory continued to vote either in Maryland or Virginia. They retained this right to vote through congressional legislation.
But when the district was formally established in 1800, Congress was silent on the voting rights for citizens of our capital city. We do not know exactly why this came about. The rights were never explicitly withdrawn. They just never addressed them.
What we all know is that our nation has always moved to expand and protect the right to vote so that ever more voices could be heard.
It’s time to do it again.
The fact is that in 1800, when the federal government first took up residence in the District, as we all know, sadly not all Americans could vote. Slaves who made up nearly a sixth of our nation’s population had NO vote and, outrageously, were counted as mere three fifths of a person.
Women could not vote and neither could many men. Most states required you to be a landowner to vote, so many tradesmen, laborers, shop clerks, farm hands and others who were vital to the nation’s growing economy were denied the franchise.
State legislatures began expanding voter rolls beyond just landowners and also provided for the direct election of Presidential electors. As a nation, we established the direct election of Senators, expanded suffrage to black men, then to women, then to citizens of 18 years of age. Landmark federal voting rights legislation has worked to truly open the polls to all qualified voters.
In Wesberry v. Sanders in 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that House districts had to be approximately equal in population so that – I quote – "as nearly as practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s” – or “one man, one vote.” Again, Mr. President, in each of these cases our national goal has always had the goal of expanding and protecting the right to vote, and that is what we seek to do today with this bill.
It is a cause the American people understand and support. Polls by “The Washington Post” and KRC Research show public support of 61 percent and 82 percent respectively for DC voting rights. In fact, the KRC Research Poll found that 78 percent of Americans thought District residents already HAD voting rights, so clearly this is an idea that has broad national support.
Some of my colleagues have expressed concern that this bill will inevitably lead to Senate representation for the District. It will not. In fact, it specifies that the District will not be considered a state for purposes of Senate representation. Mr. President, our nation and our capital have come a long way since that cold November day in 1800 when Congress convened here for the first time.
And what has made our history so rich and our nation so great since that time is our ability to see injustices and right them. That is all we seek to do here today – right an historic wrong because, in the words of Justice Hugo Black, writing in the “Wesberry” decision I spoke of earlier:
“No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
Today we have a chance take yet another historic step to enhance this great democracy by giving voice to the very people – the hardworking men and women – who toil away in its capital.
That is why I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting S. 160, or at the very least, vote to allow debate on this historic piece of legislation. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the full text of the bill be reprinted into the record and I yield the floor.