D.C. Voting Rights: Long Overlooked, Long Overdue

So now what? What’s the latest hypocritical excuse for why the capital of the free world, the District of Columbia, cannot enjoy equal democratic rights? What’s holding back the president, the House of Representative and the Senate from doing the right thing?

What did you wager whether D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, would be still waiting for President Barack Obama, a Democrat, to mention D.C. democracy, or the lack thereof, after standing in his bully pulpit Tuesday night delivering his State of the Union speech?

Everybody talks democracy for the District’s more than 600,000 disenfranchised residents; no one delivers. But all need to be reminded that democracy is not earned by balancing a budget, it is the essential American birthright.

For years all anyone heard when it came to asking that the residents of the nation’s capital be granted full voting rights, full local autonomy and the right to spend their own taxpayer generated dollars as every other American municipality, the unfounded hue and cry from the White House and Capitol Hill was, “Oh, no; they can’t manage their money.” Or, “Oh, no; they’re corrupt.”

The financial clouds grew so dark, that Congress even stripped elected officials, mainly “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry, of their limited Home Rule rights and imposed a financial control board and a chief financial officer who is more powerful than any in the country.

That was then, circa late 1990s; this is now. Since the financial control board went dormant in 2001, District leaders have balanced every budget. This year thanks to unexpected revenue brought on by new growth and some austerity, the District did even better. How many cities in America can boast of a $1.5 billion rainy day fund like the District? How many cities in this country can tout end of year budget surpluses in the hundreds of millions two years in a row like the District?

During this recession some municipalities went bankrupt. No one yanked their local autonomy or voting rights. Don’t dare look to the “kick the can down the road” or over the “fiscal cliff” Congress for budgetary prowess. But because of Congress’ constitutional control over the “federal city,” when they don’t pass a budget and have to shut down the government, so does the District.

Last month Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), still a nonvoting delegate, introduced the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act of 2013, which would allow the District’s local taxpayer-raised budget to take effect immediately after city approval, without requiring congressional approval.

“The D.C. local budget consumes valuable congressional subcommittee, committee, and floor time in both houses of Congress even though it is of interest only to those members who use it to promote their own issues, violating the principle of local self-government,” Norton said in her floor statement on the introduction of the bill. “Congressional interference into one of the most vital rights to self-government must end this year.”

Norton also has introduced or reintroduced bills this year to get a vote on the House floor and to get statehood for New Columbia, the 51st state.

Jon Bouker, chair of DC Vote’s board of directors, noted in a letter to President Obama also asking him to mention the District’s nonvoting status in the SOTU address that District residents have decided to take their money matters in their own hands. They will be voting on a controversial budget autonomy referendum in April that will change the 1973 Home Rule Charter to mirror Norton’s congressional bill.

However, some leaders, even the city’s attorney general, are concerned that such a measure will not stand up legally; Congress, after all, would have to approve it.
Last week Gray along with outgoing CFO Natwar Gandhi announced the District had a surplus of $417 million for FY2012; last year it was $241 million. Doesn’t sound like fiscal irresponsibility to many city residents who may now get more help for the “have-nots,” including affordable housing units, as promised by this mayor in his rose-colored State of the District address last week.

Gray ought to ask Congress: “How you like me now?” This healthy financial picture ought to be enough to warrant budget autonomy at a minimum for the “Last Colony.” No more “taxation without representation” excuses.

As Mayor Gray said, “I want to thank you, Mr. President, for displaying our “Taxation without Representation” license plates [on presidential vehicles since the inauguration parade] – but now is the time for us to have license to approve our own budget and our own laws.”

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D.C. Voting Rights: Long Overlooked, Long Overdue


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