Giving D.C. Residents a Vote

Yesterday was a busy news day, so I wanted to deliver some groundbreaking local news that you may have missed.

Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill on Tuesday morning that would give the District’s Delegate to Congress the right to vote on all matters applying exclusively to the District. Chairman Phil Mendelson, along with Councilmembers Charles Allen, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, David Grosso, Brianne Nadeau, Brandon Todd, and Robert White, all signed on.

This voting rights bill builds on the city’s progress in recent years of using the authority delegated to it by Congress in the Home Rule Act to expand democracy through local legislation. So far, this approach has resulted in an elected Attorney General and local budget autonomy, both of which have been upheld by the courts and not overturned by Congress.

While those two measures required use of the Charter amendment process, the proposal to give the Delegate the right to vote on D.C. matters requires only ordinary Council legislation, since the Delegate is not a creation of the Charter. DC Appleseed developed this proposal working with the Council and with our pro bono partners Lorie Masters of Hunton & Williams, Jon Bouker of Arent Fox, and Thorn Pozen of Goldblatt Martin Pozen. Let me explain how the proposal works.

Under the Constitution’s District Clause, Congress has plenary authority over the nation’s capital to legislate “in all cases whatsoever.” This includes the authority to grant D.C. residents voting representation in Congress. Through the Home Rule Act, Congress delegated this authority to the local D.C. government, and under that delegated authority, the District may amend an act of Congress that applies “exclusively . . . to the District.”

One such congressional act that applies exclusively to the District is the D.C. Delegate Act, which created the city’s nonvoting Delegate to the House of Representatives. The Council bill introduced yesterday would amend that Act to allow the Delegate to vote on all matters applying exclusively to the District. While the bill would affect Congress’s own operations, it would affect Congress only in its capacity as the local legislature for the District, and therefore it meets the requirement of affecting only issues applying exclusively to the District.

While this bill is not a substitute for full statehood or full congressional voting rights, it is a step forward for District democracy, just as the budget autonomy and elected Attorney General charter amendments were. And at a time when the current Congress is more interested in dictating what D.C. residents can flush down their toilets than their basic rights, the District has nothing to lose by fighting for a vote on matters closest to the city.

It’s unjust that D.C. residents’ ultimate local legislature is a body in which they have no vote. This new Council bill would help remedy that, and allow Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to demand the vote whenever Congress tries to legislate for the District, including on how it can spend its money.

We’re thankful to the Council for taking this important step forward for D.C. democracy. And we look forward to participating in a hearing and supporting its swift enactment.

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