No, we’re not Egypt.
As chaos in Cairo continues to dominate the world’s attention, some hyperbolic advocates of District of Columbia voting rights have drawn a comparison between the lack of democracy there and the lack of representation here.
At-Large D.C. Council candidate Alan Page made the assertion at a candidate forum last week, but political gadfly Ralph Nader’s assertion has received more attention.
In a letter to President Obama, Nader chided Obama for backing “free and fair elections” in Egypt while using “little if any of your political capital or the bully pulpit and muscle” for full representation for the District. Nader suggested, “Why not invite 100 of the exuberant, bi-lingual, peaceful Egyptian demonstrators to come to Washington, D.C., and help rally District residents in a massive gathering for their democratic rights in front of the White House at Lafayette Park?”
Just why a Democratic president would listen to the five-time presidential candidate who probably cost the Democrats the White House in 2000 is unclear. And it’s also a stretch to compare the land of Mubarak to the city of Marion Barry. True, we don’t have full democracy, but we’re not being arrested and shot at for complaining about it.
Still, Nader is right about one thing: Obama should speak out.
D.C.’s 210 years of non-representation have made the issue stale to some, but injustice normalized is still injustice. Sen. Ben Cardin said on WTOP Friday, “I think all of us need to speak out, and certainly the president needs to do that. He lives in the District. I think he should be speaking out about it.”
The best bet for D.C. could be the man Nader kept from the vice presidency a decade ago, the much-reviled, sometimes-Democrat Joe Lieberman.
Though the Connecticut senator’s stance on Iraq and his wobbling on health care infuriated many former fans, he has long been the District’s most vocal Senate advocate. As Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said when Lieberman announced his plans to retire last month, “The people of the District of Columbia have no senator of their own, but they have had in Sen. Joe Lieberman an unfailing champion of their rights. Sen. Lieberman has been the lead sponsor of virtually every bill for our rights since I have been a Member of the House.”
Lieberman himself said on the Senate floor two years ago that D.C. residents have “the wholly unsought after distinction of being the only residents of a democratically ruled national capital in the world who have no say in how their nation is governed. It’s time to right this injustice, just as this Congress historically has righted so many other voting injustices that stretched back to the very founding of our nation.”
In making that statement, Lieberman was in line with James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, who said the document he forged should be amended to give D.C. residents a “voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them.” And though D.C. is deeply Democratic, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Barry Goldwater, and even Strom Thurmond spoke out for D.C. representation at various times.
But representation needs to be done through amendment, not legislation. Some D.C. advocates say a simple law would do it, arguing that Congress’s exclusive control over D.C. means it can give D.C. a full vote. But by this standard, Congress could nullify the Bill of Rights in D.C., or give it 10 representatives or 100.
In his final days in the Senate, Lieberman should offer a constitutional amendment along the lines of a failed 1978 one that said “for purposes of representation” D.C. would be “treated as though it were a state.” He could use his pull with Republicans to win over unexpected supporters. The amendment would probably again fail, but it would be a fitting last act by Lieberman on behalf of the city he has fought for.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC