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George Orwell & DC Voting Rights

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Message Timothy Cooper

I don't know about you, but I'm confused. Confused about the contradictory language surrounding the push to pass the DC Voting Rights Act, which, if passed, would grant DC residents a full voting member in the US House of Representatives, but no US Senate representation. In fact, the downright weird inconsistency of the vocabulary used to describe the object and intent of the bill brings to mind the artful phrase by George Orwell: "Political chaos is connected with the decay of language... one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end."

Indeed, political chaos appears to be exactly what we have in the DC voting rights movement today, even as the campaign to win limited representation in Congress appears to be advancing, like General Sherman's March to the Sea, toward some semblance of victory. Invoking the noble names of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., the former Republican representative from New York, Jack Kemp, claims that the DC voting rights bill will "complete the unfinished business of American democracy." Once DC residents win a single vote in one-half of Congress, the perennial injustice of DC's 200 year-old congressional disenfranchisement will be dispensed with, at least according to Mr. Kemp. Conspicuously absent on his radar screen is support for equal DC representation in the US Senate.

Similarly, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), the bill's architect, maintains that DC congressional voting rights should be quarantined inside the chambers of the US House of Representatives. "It's hard to make a straight-faced argument that the capital of the free world shouldn't have a vote in Congress," he proclaims. But when Rep. Davis refers to "a" vote in Congress, rest assured, he really means it. Never once have the words "equal DC Senate representation" crossed his lips.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of the bill's passage, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton bravely predicted, "It may have taken us 200 years to get one vote, but it won't take us that long to get the other two in the Senate." But what she bases her optimistic forecast on remains unclear. And a local, non-partisan grassroots organization, DC Vote, which has been vigorously supporting the bill, has evidently decided to split the difference between the Republican position and Del. Norton's, saying that Congressional leaders "understand the urgent need to end the blemish on America's democracy" by passing the DC Voting Rights Act. Yet, on another day or on another side of town, the group completely contradicts itself, asserting, with a wink and a nod, that the bill's simply a "stepping stone" to the Promised Land of full congressional voting rights.

But which is it? Endgame or stepping stone? And won't this doublethink have detrimental long-term consequences?

After holding the Rep. Davis's bill at arm's length for many years in favor of her own equal representation bill, DC Delegate Norton finally reversed herself and embraced it prior to the 2006 elections, when Republicans still ran roughshod over the Congress. But now-after the triumphant return of a Democrat-majority Congress-she's officially abandoned her bill for both House and Senate representation, after making a series of like bills the centerpiece of her election campaigns and legislative agenda on Capitol Hill for the past sixteen years, marking the first time in thirty years that DC leaders have failed to put forward a DC equal voting rights bill for consideration.

In 1978, DC leaders moved to win full rights via constitutional amendment. In 1993, they pushed for DC statehood. Through the latter part of the 1990s, up until last year, they supported equal congressional voting rights. But in 2007, without the consent of DC residents, the bar has been unilaterally lowered. Now we're expected to embrace Norton's Johnnie-come-lately vision of a vote in the US House of Representatives only without question, and be grateful for it. How far the DC voting rights campaign has fallen. In 2007, "incrementalism" is "in" and principled positions are "out".

What makes matters worse is that forthright language has become a casualty of the rush to pass something-anything-that attempts to give us a modicum of representation. But when "our supporters" define equality as one-third representation in Congress, then words-words that matter-have lost their true meaning. Red becomes green, and green red. Political chaos sets in. Imagine the puzzlement of the American public when DC leaders return to solicit their support for completing "the unfinished business of American democracy" once the DC Voting Rights Act is passed. Republicans will say it's already been done; "Blue Dog" Democrats will shrug and say, move on; liberal Democrats will be outgunned, and nothing much more will happen.

The DC Voting Rights Act is a mistake. It will not achieve genuine equality. Its lead supporters are corrupting the principled language of our historical cause, and further, DC Delegate Norton has lowered DC's voting rights bar without the city's consent, ignoring the legitimate aspirations of DC residents repeatedly expressed in polls for decades, at the very moment Democrats have retaken Congress. As a result, what we have is a royal state of chaos, not clear progress toward winning equal voting rights in Congress.
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Timothy Cooper is the Executive Director of Worldrights, an international NGO specializing in US and China human rights issues.
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