Leahy Urges Passage Of DC Voting Rights Bill

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Wednesday urged the Senate to pass a bill to provide voting rights in the U.S. House of Representatives to the District of Columbia.  The capital city’s lone voice in Congress, a single delegate in the House of Representatives, is not currently permitted to vote.  Under the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009, of which Leahy is a cosponsor, the District’s delegate would be elevated to a voting member of the House of Representatives, and the state of Utah would receive one additional seat in the House.

“The Senate should continue to fight for the fundamental civil rights of all Americans,” Leahy said on the Senate floor Wednesday.  “No one’s right to vote should be abridged, suppressed, or denied in the United States of America.  I am proud to cosponsor the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009, which would give residents of the District of Columbia a vote in the House of Representatives.”

Leahy chaired a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on District of Columbia voting rights in 2007.  The proposed legislation has been introduced in previous Congresses, most recently in 2007, but objections from Senate Republicans stalled it’s consideration in the Senate.  The House of Representatives passed a similar measure in 2007. 

The full text of Leahy’s statement follows.

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy,
Chairman, Senate Committee On The Judiciary,
On The “District Of Columbia House Voting Rights Act Of 2009”
February 25, 2009

The Senate now considers a bill to provide voting rights to citizens of the Nation’s capital city.  I am proud to cosponsor the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009.  This important legislation would end over 200 years of unfair treatment to nearly 600,000 Americans living in the District of Columbia, a population roughly equal to the of Vermont, and give them a vote in the House of Representatives.  Earlier this week, the Senate finally broke through the Republican filibuster of this legislation that stalled its consideration in the last Congress.  That filibuster prevented its passage, despite the bipartisan support of 57 Senators, a majority of the Senate.  The vote earlier this week to overcome that filibuster is an encouraging step toward guaranteeing all citizens representation in our Government. 

Last Congress, President Bush threatened to veto this bill.  This time, when the Congress passes this bill, I am confident President Obama, who cosponsored and voted for the bill when serving in this body as a Senator from Illinois, will sign it into law.

I commend Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Senator Hatch for having worked out a voting rights bill for the District of Columbia that can and should pass with bipartisan support. The bill we consider today would give the District of Columbia delegate a vote in the House of Representatives.  To remove partisan political opposition, it accords Utah an additional vote in the House, as well. 

As a young lawyer, Congresswoman Norton worked for civil rights and voting rights around the country.  It is a cruel irony that as the District of Columbia’s longtime representative in Congress, she still does not yet have the right to vote.  She is a strong voice in Congress, but the citizens living in the Nation’s capital deserve her vote on their behalf to count.    

I believe this legislation is within congressional power as provided in the Constitution.  This is not a partisan conclusion.  Lawyers from across the political spectrum, from Judge Patricia Wald to Kenneth Starr and former Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, agree that this action is constitutional.   After careful study, we have all concluded that Congress has the constitutional authority to grant voting rights in the House of Representatives to the representative of the citizens of the District of Columbia.      

Last Congress, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on this issue, and heard compelling testimony from constitutional experts that such a bill is constitutional.  They highlighted the fact that Congress’s greater power to confer statehood on the District certainly encompasses the lesser action to grant District residents voting rights in the House of Representatives. 

Moreover, Congress has often treated the District of Columbia as a “State” for a variety of purposes.  Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton reminded us that “Congress has not had the slightest difficulty in treating the District as a State, with its laws, its treaties, and for constitutional purposes.” 

Examples of these actions include a revision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that broadened Article III diversity jurisdiction to include citizens of the District, even though the Constitution expressly provides that Federal courts may hear cases “between citizens of different States.”  Congress has also treated the District as a “State” for purposes of congressional power to regulate commerce “among the several States.” 

The Sixteenth Amendment, the Federal income tax amendment, grants Congress the power directly to tax incomes “without apportionment among the several States” and that taxing power has been interpreted to apply to residents of the District.  The District of Columbia car license plates or tags remind us every day that District residents suffer from “Taxation Without Representation,” a battle cry during the founding days of this republic.  

Hundreds of thousands of Americans residing in the District of Columbia are required to pay Federal taxes.  In fact, the District of Columbia residents pay the second highest Federal taxes per capita in the Nation, yet residents have no say in how those dollars are spent.  We must also remember that many who serve bravely in our armed services come from the District of Columbia.  The brave men and women who defend our values and freedoms abroad must also enjoy those same rights here at home. 

Opponents of this bill claim that the citizens of the District of Columbia do indeed have representation, that they fall under the jurisdiction of all 100 Senators and 435 Representatives and are sufficiently provided for by Congress.  To that argument I say that there is no substitute for direct representation in Congress.  Citizens of the District of Columbia deserve the chance to elect a representative who has not only a voice in Congress, but a vote as well. 

Over 50 years ago, after overcoming filibusters and obstruction, the Senate rightfully passed the Civil Rights Act in 1957 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  Let us build on that tradition and extend the reach and resolve of America’s representative democracy.  I am pleased that we took the first step in overcoming the filibuster of this legislation, and I urge all Senators to support the final passage of this bill without further delay.       

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