They blew it again.
Two years ago, with a Democrat elected president by a wide margin and solid majorities for that party in both the Senate and the House, full congressional voting rights for the District of Columbia seemed like a sure thing. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said at the time, “I really can’t think of a scenario by which we could fail.”
After two decades of disappointment, Norton should have known better. Given the opportunity to screw up D.C. voting rights, the Democrats always do. Statehood seemed on track during the Carter Administration, but never happened. Bill Clinton, who also enjoyed congressional majorities when he was elected, put the matter on hold while he worked on other issues, only to see both houses go Republican in 1994. Barack Obama has given the issue little more than lip service, as he has grappled with more prominent national issues.
But it did look different this time. Though legislation granting D.C. a full House vote was of questionable constitutionality, it was gradually winning support, and the planned addition of another House seat for Republican Utah to counter Democratic D.C. made it more palatable to the GOP. But Republicans and conservative Democrats tacked on a measure that would considerably weaken the District’s gun laws, and House Democratic leaders pulled it from consideration for the year.
At the time, they had hopes that they could bring it up again in 2011. The party was expecting modest election losses, but did not yet foresee the actual loss of control. Now, with Republicans about to take charge, D.C. voting rights are dead -- again. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told the Washington Post, “I think the best shot we had at voting rights was probably last year.”
Norton also said Democrats “should have been able to get this bill through,” but said she hopes to work with incoming Speaker John Boehner on the matter. A few leading House Republicans, including Mike Pence and Paul Ryan, support a D.C. vote at least in theory, but neither is expected to play a major role on any committee dealing with District matters.
Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray gets a sit-down with Obama at the White House Wednesday, but it’s not likely to change things. Obama didn’t press D.C. rights when he had a House majority, and as DCist’s Martin Austermuhle writes, “even if Gray complains about Obama’s inattentiveness to the issue, there’s not really much that the President can do at this point to help the city in its quest to be something other than a modern-day federal colony.”
The condition of the D.C. rights movement can be seen in the renewed talk of statehood, which Gray has promoted. While the idea has appeal, it is very unpopular outside of the District. A 2005 poll showed that more than 80 percent of Americans think the District should have a House vote, but Ilir Zherka of D.C. Vote has estimated national support for D.C. statehood to be only about 20 percent.
And then there’s retrocession.
The idea of returning most of the territory of the District to its former state, creating a big city called “Washington, Maryland,” has appeal to cartography buffs and some Republicans, and a historical precedent in the return of D.C. territory west of the Potomac to Virginia in the late 1840s. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the top Republican on D.C. issues in the House, favors the idea. But it’s a nonstarter.
For one thing, any change to D.C.’s borders would require the revision or repeal of the Constitution’s 23rd Amendment, which gives D.C. three electoral votes. Ceding terrain to Maryland without repealing the amendment would leave three electoral votes in the hands of the handful of people who would be left living in the tiny National Capital Service Area. The Virginia precedent would permit retrocession to take place with a simple vote of Congress and the Maryland legislature, but the amendment problem would remain.
But also, the idea is unpopular with the people it would impact. Though polling numbers don’t exist, anecdotal evidence suggests Marylanders don’t really want the city of Washington to join their state. And as Hoyer told the Post, “I think the residents of the District of Columbia have no desire to be subsumed into the state of Maryland. They are very proud of the fact they are District of Columbia citizens.”
So we’re back where we started -- hoping for a remedy, with none in sight, and coping with a hostile House majority. As Virginia’s Tom Davis, the biggest GOP booster of a D.C. vote until his 2008 retirement, told the Post, the odds of passage in the next house are “zero.” He added, “The chance is gone, I would guess, for 10 years.”
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC