Don’t be fooled by news from Majority Leader Boehner’s (R-OH) office that Rep. Tom Davis’s (R-VA) bill won’t get to the floor. Incoming Democrats may be even more eager than the Republicans to give Utah a fourth seat in the House.
Fair minded people around the nation want the citizens of the District Of Columbia to have a voice in their own government. There are advocates for statehood and retrocession to Maryland and for the Davis plan of seating a real congressman from D.C. There are even a few radical libertarians who want the federal government shrunk so much that the D.C. economy withers and D.C. citizens move into the several states where they can then vote. But that isn’t what has kept D.C. representation in limbo all these many years.
It comes down to racial politics. The District Of Columbia is 60% African-American. No other state or potential state has a majority of any particular non-white race (Hawai’i and Texas have no racial majority). Historically the idea of a majority African-American state has bothered many congressmen, especially southerners. The residents of D.C. responded with distrust toward outside majority white institutions that questioned their leaders. D.C. residents even backed up and reelected openly criminal leaders like former mayor and current councilman Marion Barry.
Call it thinly veiled racism or rational caution but the United States Senate isn’t going to support D.C. statehood as long as they think it means working with Senator Marion Barry.
The Congressional Black Caucus is acutely aware of the racism remaining in American society and threats to its members’ prerogatives. Fighting racism in our nation is an important job but like all organizations of political insiders, the CBC’s mission gets mixed up with the job of expanding the power of political insiders. The CBC is supporting incumbent William Jefferson (D-LA) in the New Orleans runoff this month (against another African-American Democrat) even though he was caught with $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer. Jefferson has insinuated that finding the bribe money was a racist attack by the FBI. But Speaker elect Pelosi worked to strip Jefferson of his committee assignments and obviously prefers his opponent as do most Democrats nationwide.
The CBC also wanted impeached and convicted former federal judge Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL) to head the Select Committee on Intelligence. Select committees are appointed entirely by party leadership and usually address sensitive issues like espionage. Speaker elect Nancy Pelosi didn’t want to choose war enthusiast Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) and passed over Hastings due to past corruption worries to pick Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) as chairman. There is some dispute over the circumstances of the bribery investigation that ousted Judge Hastings two decades ago and led him to run for Congress. Some of the doubts come from our own Senator Orrin Hatch, who voted not to convict him.
This leaves Speaker Pelosi in a position where she wants to prove to the CBC that she will fight for the interests of African-Americans nationwide and CBC members. D.C. representation under the Davis bill would be a great success for Pelosi and bring her caucus together. Powerful CBC congressmen like incoming Ways And Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Judiciary Chairman Conyers (D-MI) can be counted on to help.
Do you know which body meets most often in the Chamber of the United States House Of Representatives? If you guessed “The United States House Of Representatives,” you’re going to be surprised. In fact, the body that meets most often in the House Chamber is The Committee Of The Whole House On The State Of The Union. (also known as the “Committee Of The Whole”) Every member of the House is also a member of the Committee Of The Whole. The rules for the official House are simple and strict by long tradition so actual debate and amendments of bills occur with a more flexible set of rules and the Committee Of The Whole was created so that the rules of the official House wouldn’t have to be adjusted. Lately Republicans have been using the new rules to stifle debate instead of encourage it, but that should end now that the party of open government is in charge.
In the 103rd Congress (1993-1994) the non-voting Delegate to Congress from the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was granted voting privileges in the Committee Of The Whole, just like members of the House. The only votes she couldn’t participate in were votes on final passage of bills which, under the Constitution, require passage in the official House. Republican leadership didn’t want Del. Norton to vote, but she still serves on some House committees and can expect to have her power to vote in the Committee Of The Whole restored in the 110th Congress next year.
Some would argue that votes on amending bills are the most numerous and most important floor votes and notice that they are done in the Committee Of The Whole. Those might suggest that Norton and D.C. should be satisfied with her voting rights restored. They have a point but the exclusion from an official voice rankles D.C. citizens and D.C. mayor Anthony Williams.
Williams is likely to run against long time delegate Norton in 2008 on the platform of fighting harder for an official congressional seat. Long time congressmen like to support the reliable reelection of long time congressmen above all else. The threat to Norton will focus their energy on passing the Davis bill or one like it in the 110th Congress.
Of course, Republicans and especially Senate Republicans will block a bill that doesn’t restore the seat stolen away from Utah by census 2000 shenanigans. Since Senate Republicans retain the filibuster — but only through the strength of Democratic backbone — Utah will have to be included.
It’s not a sure thing, but don’t despair over the 2007 fourth seat yet.