Things have continued to get interesting in the battle to give DC residents a voice in the US Congress. The DC House Voting Rights Act, hampered by an egregious NRA-backed amendment that would gut DC’s gun control laws, looked totally stalled. Then the bill’s prospects became even muddier as it was reported that Attorney General Eric Holder, unhappy with an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that the bill was unconstitutional, sought a more favorable take. Then last week, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who had of late publicly chewed out Mayor Adrian Fenty for urging the passage of the bill with or without the gun amendment, began to sound like she was going to lend her support to the NRA-stained bill herself. Per The Hill:
In a remarkable shift of tone, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she expected House leaders to agree to an amendment backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which she vehemently opposes, in order to pass the voting rights bill. It has already passed the Senate.
“For the first time, the leaders in both houses are looking very seriously at this gun law,” Norton said a hearing this morning. “And they are aware the gun law is going to become law.”
She continued, “Because we’re going to pass the D.C. House Voting Rights Act. We’re not letting anything stand in the way of that. There is no question in my mind these leaders are going to get this done. There’s also no question in my mind that if you have this attached to both bills, it’s law.”
But if that wasn’t confusing enough, this weekend Norton used the occasion of the recent mass shootings to highlight the problem with removing DC’s gun laws in the voting rights bill. Per Washington Post‘s DC Wire:
“In only the 25 days between March 10 and April 5, 53 people have been killed in mass murders by gunmen,” a statement from her office said.
“The bill would eliminate all local gun laws, making the city, including official Washington, more open to gun violence than any of the jurisdictions where the mass killings have occurred in March and April,” according to the statement.
So perhaps this shows Norton to be acquiescing to inevitabilities, but not going quietly into that not-so-good night.
But with these two bits of news, we have two important questions: Is the bill worth passing with the NRA/John Ensign amendment attached, and is the constitutionality of the bill a serious concern?
On the first question, I have made my own position pretty clear. DC voting rights have already had to endure far too many concessions, including the absurd idea that in order for a primarily-Democratic district to have representation, the Republicans have to get one, too (in Utah). That was too much to my mind, but I began to swallow it as there seemed no other way. Adding now this notion that DC should give up its right to decide its own gun laws is laughably absurd. The bill should not be passed with this offensive attachment.
McClatchy’s editorial board put it very well last week in an uncompromising piece:
. . . when a single-interest group can dictate the terms of legislation unrelated to its cause and hold the proposal hostage, the result is unhealthy for democracy. . . .
[The Senate] decided that the wishes of the NRA must be obeyed without question. Even if it means overruling local citizens who believe that they, rather than special interests, have the right to decide local gun-control practices for themselves. . . .
The NRA has the right to spend money on behalf of its cause ($15.6 million in campaign donations over the last two years) and to exercise clout at election time, but voters have rights, too. They have a right to expect more backbone from their representatives.
And the DCist blog questioned, wisely I think, the whole notion of the politics involved:
Republicans in the House largely don’t support granting the District a voting member, so most of them are likely to vote against the bill anyway. And liberal Democrats will surely have a hard time explaining to their constituents that they voted for the bill with the amendment. So now the question is, can the Democratic leadership even be assured that the bill itself will pass with the amendment?
Which is probably the real point. The Republicans are dead set against a liberal, black district getting a voice in Congress, regardless of the compromises involved. The Ensign amendment, I think, is designed to be so unpalatable as to turn Democrats away from the bill, not really to change DC’s gun laws. If it does happen to pass with the gun law change, then fine, at least they got something they wanted, but this was never really the point. Cynical and heartless in the extreme.
The second question, then, regards the bill’s constitutionality. Clearly, the District is not a state, and the Constitution gives congressional representation to states. So the better question is, does it matter if it’s unconstitutional?
Of course it does, but it seems to me that there are a couple ways of looking at this. On one hand, it matters if for no other reason than that it could be struck down by the Supreme Court after passage. But of course the spirit of the Constitution is one of equality for all, that the citizens of the United States are all represented in their government. The arbitrary geographical distinction under which DC suffers, that of being a “district,” doesn’t make its residents any less American or any less deserving of representation. So in this way, the problem is technical, and possibly ignorable.
Well then, you might say, why not just toss out the whole document if you can ignore parts of it? That’s an important point. But it is crucial, I think, to remember that the Constitution is not an infallible document (think slavery — a.k.a. “all other persons,” prohibition, not allowing for women to vote, etc.). Right now, it has a big rent in it that allows 600,000 Americans to be disenfranchised. It surely was not the intention of the Founders to explicitly do so, and it is surely not in keeping with the spirit of the document.
In my mind, the DC House Voting Rights Act (without the Ensign amendment) is a band-aid, a piece of clear tape over a hole in the document, through which hundreds of thousands of citizens are slipping. Indeed, th
e only real solution is statehood or integration with another state. But until then, it is no longer fair to make the people of Washington, DC wait for a taste of political equality.