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Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Washington could do with a taste of democracy, too

There is one great oddity - some would call it one glaring hypocrisy - about America's drive to bring democracy to the rest of the world. George Bush and his crowd wax lyrical about giving people the right to vote for the leaders of their choice. But that right has yet to be fully extended to the 572,000 citizens of America's own capital city.

Washington DC has been described as the last US colony. Until 1961 its inhabitants could not even vote for the President. Not until 1974 were they able to elect their own mayor. Even today, they have neither senators nor a member of the House of Representatives, even though the district's population is about the size of an average House district - and larger than that of Wyoming, which, like its 49 fellow states, has two senators too.

Car number plates carry the words "Taxation Without Representation". We pay federal taxes levied by Congress. In the last resort our affairs are run by Congress, which can overrule the city council. We send no members to that Congress, however - just a "delegate" who has no right of vote on the House floor.

Taxation, no representation, Boston Tea Party, 1776... sound familiar? How this bizarre state of affairs came about is a long story. Suffice to say that when the founding fathers carved the "Federal District" on the Potomac out of the states of Virginia and Maryland, they saw it solely as a seat of government. But people - notably blacks fleeing slavery - moved in during the 19th century. Alas, home rule for a majority black city was the last thing on the mind of a white and instinctively segregationist Congress.

Now, at last, there is a glimmer of hope. Tom Davis is a moderate Republican from Virginia who chairs the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees DC affairs. He has come up with a plan to give the district its own seat in the House of Representatives, along with an extra seat for Utah.

On population trends, Utah is the state next in line for an extra seat. More important, the district voted 90 per cent for John Kerry in the last election. Utah, on the other hand, is rock-red Republican. Any new Utah congressman is thus almost bound to be a Republican, so the net change to the balance of power in the House would be zero.

Mr Davis's committee passed the measure 29-4 on Thursday, and he has been promised that it will be given a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, the next stop along the legislative line. Others, most vocally Republicans who dislike Davis, say, in effect, dream on. The proposal, they warn, doesn't have a prayer. But it is a good deal more realistic than the last effort in the early 1990s, when DC activists went for bust, seeking to turn the federal enclave into a fully fledged 51st state named New Columbia, with two senators as well as a congressman. No way were Republicans going to gift two extra Senate seats to the Democrats. Mr Davis is offering a version of "statehood lite", tailored to offend no one.

But the old image dies hard, of Washington as Murder Capital USA, permanently on the brink of bankruptcy and led by a feckless mayor once caught smoking crack cocaine with a hooker. In fact the murder rate has more than halved from its 1991 peak, and the city currently enjoys a big financial surplus.

True, the feckless Marion Barry (though long retired as mayor) still has his brushes with the law, while the city administration can seem shambolic. The DC government is no paragon; but since when was competent government a criterion for voting rights - least of all in those faraway places where the US is bent on installing democracy?

My own solution is simple: keep a tiny, strip-shaped federal district around the Mall containing the institutions of federal government - the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court and so on - and hand the rest back to Maryland whence it came more than two centuries ago. But when did logic ever affect the constitutional arrangements for Washington DC?

Even Mr Davis says his quest is "quixotic". But he adds: "Once in a while, you sit back and say, 'This is just wrong, and I'm in a position to do something about it.' This is the right thing to do." And just occasionally, things that are right actually come to pass.