Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

It would be easier to promote political freedom around the world if DC's own citizens were finally able to vote
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Washington DC is undeniably a gorgeous city. Wander around the imperial capital and you cannot fail to be impressed by its splendid vistas and monuments, its elegant public buildings. But all is not what it seems: shift your eyes for a moment from the white marble facades to the local car numberplates. "Taxation without Representation," they say.

This may be the seat of government of the most powerful country on Earth. But it's also America's last colony, whose inhabitants have yet to get the vote. Now, more than two centuries after Washington DC came into being, that may finally be about to change.

Disenfranchisement, it should be said, is not total. Since 1964 DC residents have been allowed to vote in presidential elections, and since 1975 they have elected their own mayor and city council. But Washingtonians have no say in how America's laws are made, even though DC's population of 550,000 is greater than that of Wyo-ming, which like every state has two Senators and at least one Congressman.

The injustices of the West Lothian question (why should Scottish MPs at Westminster vote on issues affecting England only?) pale beside the humiliations inflicted on Washington by the Congress. Currently Congress has absolute power over the District ("full and unlimited" authority, in the words of a Supreme Court ruling on the subject). The dominance is enshrined in the Constitution, but its deeper origins lie in America's racist past. Dixie may have lost the Civil War, but that didn't stop 19th-century law-makers from the south treating the overwhelmingly black capital like their own private plantation.

This week, however, Congress may take a vital step towards righting this wrong. A bill that easily cleared the House of Representatives this summer would give the District its own House seat for the first time. On Tuesday it faces a tougher procedural vote in the Senate.

As Democrats who have vainly tried to force a vote on a bill setting a timetable for an Iraq withdrawal can attest, the required majority in the 100-seat Senate is not 51, but the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Anything short of that, and DC's chances of a voice in the House chamber would go the way of many civil rights bills in the 1940s and 1950s, talked to death on the floor by segregationist Democrats from the South.

On the face of it, the very thought seems preposterous. This after all is 2007, not 1957, when President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to desegregrate Little Rock Central High School, 50 years ago this week. And DC has changed out of all recognition in a span of just 20 years. True, the place remains majority black, and overwhelmingly Democratic (in the last presidential election it voted 89 per cent for John Kerry, and just 9 per cent for George Bush). But the Washington of the era of Mayor Marion Barry – bankrupt, crime-ridden and notorious around the world as a model of municipal dysfunction – is no more. This is a sleek, modern city, competently run and boasting a solid budget surplus at the heart of one of the most prosperous regions of the US.

Washington is still racially divided, but no longer Murder Capital, USA, whose mayor was caught in a sting operation, smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room with an FBI informant. In short, the Washington that the visiting Charles Dickens described in 1842 as "a city of magnificent intentions" has in recent years made many of those intentions come true. But the issue far transcends the question of good governance. Not only is the moral case unanswerable that DC should have a seat in the House. It is also in the obvious self- interest of those in whose gift that seat is.

The slogan on the licence plates, of course, summons up the grievance of America's founders that led to 1776 – "No taxation without representation". The city pays a vast amount of tax into federal coffers (more than all but one of the 50 states on a per capita basis) and has sent its sons and daughters to fight and die in Iraq, in a war it has had no say in authorising or financing.

If that is not argument enough, consider some other, more practical advantages. Enfranchisement would remove the quite legitimate charge of hypocrisy levelled at the US in its global campaign for democracy. Don't lecture us on democracy, Condoleezza Rice and her aides have been told by autocratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere: you don't even give the vote to the citizens of your own capital. And how is it that the citizens of Baghdad vote for their own national parliament, but those of Washington DC can't?

The betting is that the bill will get its 60 votes, but don't count on it. Some Republicans (though not all) say the proposal violates the stipulation of the constitution that only fully fledged states can send representatives to Washington. Among them could be George "Liberty and Democracy" Bush, who has hinted that he may veto the measure if it reaches his Oval Office desk.

This time though, no one is talking about statehood for DC, or trying to resurrect the 1993 bill that would have granted statehood to a renamed "New Columbia" but was defeated by a resounding 277 votes to 153 – and that in a Democrat- run House. Statehood is out, for the simple reason that no Republican in his right mind would ever vote for a measure that would give the Democrats two extra-safe Senate seats, with nothing in return.

This 2007 bill not only explicitly declares that the Senate will not be affected. It offers the Republicans very much of a quid pro quo in the House, with an extra Congressional district seat for rock-solid Republican Utah, that would offset the certain Democratic gain in DC and leave the overall balance of power unaffected. What could be fairer than that? Alas, with Washington DC and voting, little is ever fair.