Voting Representation for DC Citizens – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Location: Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you very much for the opportunity to testify this afternoon on voting representation in Congress for the citizens of the District of Columbia. My name is Wade Henderson, and I am the Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The Leadership Conference consists of more than 180 national organizations, representing persons of color, women, children, labor unions, individuals with disabilities, older Americans, major religious groups, gays and lesbians and civil liberties and human rights groups. Together, over 50 million Americans belong to the organizations that comprise the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

The Leadership Conference strongly supports efforts to give citizens of the District of Columbia full voting representation in the United States Congress. At the outset of this hearing I want to commend you, Mr. Chairman, for your leadership on this important issue, and on your bill, S. 603, the No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2001. The Leadership Conference fully supports this bill, along with its counterpart in the House of Representatives, introduced by Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton.

The right to vote is fundamental in our democracy. The struggle to obtain voting rights for all Americans has long been at the center of the fight for civil rights. The Congress has enacted many important laws over the years protecting and enhancing the right to vote, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. S. 603 continues the distinguished path of providing the full measure of the right to vote for all Americans. It is a top priority on the legislative agenda of the Leadership Conference.

Voting is the language of our democracy. Without it, the citizens of the District of Columbia are the silent voice in the wilderness, spectators to democracy, right in the literal shadow of the very governing institutions that serve as a shining beacon to the rest of the world.

This is not right, this is not fair, to have two distinct classes of citizens – those of the 50 states, and those of the District of Columbia. No other democratic nation in the world denies the residents of its capital representation in the national legislature.

The Leadership Conference holds as a guiding tenet that all citizens of the United States must be treated equally under the law. We have long supported the civil rights movement here in our nation’s capital, championing voting rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia and the popular election of local officials.

The tragedy of the September 11th terrorist attacks on our nation pointed out the importance of the District of Columbia and the paradox of denying D.C. residents the full measure of participation in our government. On that day, terrorists struck at our financial center in New York City and our government center here in Washington. Their attack was on all Americans, without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation. And Americans from around the nation opened their hearts, with unparalleled generosity, to help the victims of this tragedy.

The citizens of the District of Columbia were no exception. D.C. residents were part of the first responders to the Pentagon attack. Members of the District of Columbia National Guard were among the first to be called up to serve our nation during this time of crisis. And sadly, D.C. had its share of the victims in the September 11th attacks. Yet, D.C. residents have no voting representation in the very government they seek to preserve and defend.

The Leadership Conference believes it is now time to move forward on the important legislation under discussion today. Residents of the District of Columbia dutifully comply with the civic responsibilities and obligations required by our democratic form of government, they pay taxes and they serve in our armed forces. Yet residents of the District are blatantly deprived of many of the essential rights and privileges of citizenship enjoyed by all other Americans. This is an issue of simple justice and fairness.

Residents of the District of Columbia are the only United States citizens today who pay federal income tax each year (and pay at the second highest per capita rate in the nation) yet are denied voting representation in the Congress. Unlike citizens residing in the 50 states, residents of the District of Columbia are not fully represented in the Congress of the United States.

As you know, this has not always been the case. Before the District was established in 1800, residents of the city of Washington were able to vote for representatives in Congress, as citizens of either Maryland or Virginia. There is no prohibition on restoring voting representation in Congress for citizens of the District of Columbia.

This issue has long had bipartisan support in the Congress, and I would hope that it would today as well. In 1978, both the Senate and the House passed a constitutional amendment to grant D.C. residents full representation in Congress. Although that amendment failed to be ratified by the required 38 states, it was supported by many prominent Republicans and Democrats.

In preparing for today’s hearing, I was struck by the breadth of support for D.C. voting rights in the years leading up to the 1978 Constitutional Amendment. Listen to some of the voices, voices you might not have expected to hear:

  • President Richard Nixon — It should offend the democratic sense of this nation that the citizens of its capital… have no voice in the Congress.

  • Senator Robert Dole — The Republican party supported DC voting representation because it was just, and in justice we could do nothing else.

  • Senator Robert Byrd — The people of the District… suffered more lives lost in the Vietnam War than 10 states… conscription without representation.

  • Assistant Attorney General (now Supreme Court Chief Justice) William Rehnquist — The need for an amendment at this late date in our history is too self-evident for further elaboration; continued denial of voting representation from the District of Columbia can no longer be justified.

  • Senator Howard Baker (now Ambassador to Japan) — We simply cannot continue to deny American citizens their right to equal representation in the national government… this basic right is a bedrock of our Republic that cannot be overturned.

Like most pieces of enacted civil rights legislation, voting rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia has long had strong bipartisan support.

Before I conclude, let me address the issue of taxation without representation. Some will argue that this bill, if enacted, will turn the District of Columbia into a haven for tax dodgers. Nothing can be further from the truth.

This bill is aimed at achieving full voting representation in the Congress for the citizens of the District of Columbia, citizens who now pay more than their fair share of federal taxes. Its title – No Taxation Without Representation – dates back to the historic foundation of American democracy. It is aimed at moving the Congress to take positive action on this issue, but does not in fact create voting representation in Congress for representatives of the District of Columbia.

The bill merely makes clear that until full voting representation is achieved, residents of the District should be treated more like their counterparts in the Territories of the United States, who do not pay federal taxes. The Leaders