Obama’s Rise Gives Hope to ’51st State’

By: - January 20, 2009 12:00 am

Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday (Jan. 20) as the nation’s 44 th president has raised the hopes of Americans across the country, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the nation’s capital.

Leaders from the District of Columbia hope Obama’s presidency will mean Washington’s residents will finally get a vote in Congress – seen as a step toward statehood, the ultimate goal for many of the District’s leaders.

D.C. activists posted signs around the inaugural sites touting statehood for D.C., and the city council installed a sign tracking the amount of federal taxes Washingtonians pay without a vote in Congress.

Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) said District leaders would use the inauguration as a platform to push for rights for D.C. residents.

“We’ll take every opportunity to raise the voting rights issue with the American citizenry so they’re reminded of how hypocritical our voting right situation is,” he told Stateline.org last week, referring to the District’s lack of voting members in Congress.

While Fenty supports statehood for D.C., he said his immediate goal is a U.S. House vote for the District. The current plan (which Obama sponsored as a U.S. senator) is for Congress to add two seats to the House, one going to the solidly Democratic capital city and another to the Republican stronghold of Utah, which narrowly missed securing another House seat after the 2000 Census.

But it’s unclear whether the District could actually get a House vote without a constitutional amendment. The reason? The Constitution says the House shall be “composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states.” And D.C. isn’t a state.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote , said a court battle is inevitable if Congress agrees to let a D.C. delegate vote in the House. Hans von Spakovsky, a visiting legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation who opposes the legislation, agrees that a legal fight would follow a new law.

“They can’t do it by having Congress pass a bill that the president signs into law. The only way they can do it is to amend the Constitution,” von Spakovsky said.

Zherka of D.C. Vote said a law to give the District a House vote would be legal, but he acknowledged that courts have never tackled the issue.

“If we’re right, then I think we need to think about the Senate and what the implications are. If we’re wrong, I think we need to rethink our approach,” he said.

Even though D.C. is not a state, it often seems like one.

The District has its own license plates and drivers licenses. It runs its own Medicaid program, its own prison system and its own lottery. D.C. has its own National Guard unit, although, without a governor, the president (through the secretary of the Army) calls up the Guard to respond to local emergencies. The District levies an income tax and has its own tax forms. And, as of this month, the District even has its own quarter.

But Congress can meddle in the District’s affairs whenever it feels the need.

It blocked the District from launching a needle exchange program. It prevented the District from imposing a commuter tax. And federal lawmakers even forced the District to change the way cabs calculate their fares.

If District residents want somewhere to place the blame for their situation, they can start with Philadelphia.

In 1783, Congress had to flee Philadelphia – then the nation’s capital – because disgruntled soldiers serving in George Washington’s army nearly mutinied, and Pennsylvania authorities refused to protect Congress. So when the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia some six years later, they decided the safety of the federal government shouldn’t be left to any state.

James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, defended the arrangement in the Federalist Papers (No. 43) . He said the federal government needed complete authority in the seat of government.

A state that hosted the federal government “might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government, and dissatisfactory to the other members of the confederacy,” he wrote.

Today, D.C. residents complain of too little influence or none at all. The District’s license plates bear the Revolutionary War slogan of “Taxation Without Representation” because residents have no vote in Congress, which has the final say over how the District runs its affairs.

Obama’s election, like the selection of Democratic presidents before him, has D.C. leaders optimistic. “We’re just so fortunate that we’ve got a president-elect who completely gets it and who’s completely supportive,” said Fenty, the mayor.

Under the last two Democratic presidents, though, bids to give the District more power failed.

In 1978 while Jimmy Carter was in office, Congress proposed a constitutional amendment to give the District votes in the House and Senate. That measure died because only 16 of the required 38 states approved it.

Shortly after Bill Clinton moved to the White House in 1993, Democrats proposed creating a state of New Columbia out of the non-federal lands in the city. The U.S. House defeated the measure on a 277-153 vote.

The votes of District residents didn’t count in presidential elections until the 23 rd Amendment passed in 1961.

In this year’s presidential election, D.C. voters gave Obama 93 percent of the vote. Now they’re working to have their voice heard more than once every four years.

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