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Public Statements

District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, today's debate involves one of the most important issues in our democracy. Dr. Martin Luther King called the right to vote ``civil right number one.'' Yet hundreds of thousands of Americans who live in the Nation's Capital have been denied an equal voice in our democracy. Citizens in the District of Columbia live in the very shadow of the Capitol Building, but they have no representative who can vote their interests within these halls. It is long past time for us to finally correct this basic wrong.

I commend Senators Lieberman, Hatch, and Bennett for their strong leadership on this legislation.

Since the Revolutionary War, ``No taxation without representation'' has been a fundamental American principle. It is a famous phrase in our history. James Otis said it first in a historic speech in Massachusetts in 1763, and it was so inspiring that John Adams later said, ``Then and there, the child `independence' was born.''

Yet more than two centuries later, citizens who live in the Nation's Capital still bear the unfair burden of taxation without representation. The more than half a million District of Columbia residents pay significant Federal taxes each year. In fact, DC residents have the second-highest per capita tax burden in the Nation. Yet they have no say in how Federal taxes are spent, and they have no role in writing the Nation's tax laws.

Residents of the District have fought and died in every war to defend American interests. Two hundred thirty seven DC residents died in the Vietnam war. Today, while we debate whether DC citizens deserve a vote in Congress, many brave Americans who live in the District are fighting for voting rights in Iraq. Since the beginning of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2813 DC residents--2110 members of the Active Duty military and 703 members of the Reserve Forces--have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the course of these conflicts, 28 DC residents have been wounded or killed.

Citizens of the District of Columbia have no voice when Congress considers whether to go to war. The brave soldiers from the Nation's Capital have no representation in Congress when the votes are counted on funding levels for our troops and other issues relating to the war. When Congress debates assistance to war veterans or considers how to improve conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, the patriotic veterans who live in this city have no vote. It is unconscionable.

If we are for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should certainly be for democracy in the District of Columbia as well.

I have long been a strong supporter of DC representation in Congress. In 1978, I worked with Walter Fauntroy and many others on a constitutional amendment to correct this basic injustice. We finally passed the constitutional amendment in Congress, but we weren't able to get it ratified by a sufficient number of States to take effect. Because we weren't successful then, the issue remains just as urgent today.

Fortunately, a constitutional amendment isn't the only option. The Constitution's District clause provides another, legal means for providing citizens of the District of Columbia a vote in Congress. As respected constitutional scholars have made clear, article I, section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the authority ``to exercise exclusive Legislation, in all Cases whatsoever, over such District'' of Columbia. The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress's exclusive authority over the District of Columbia is broad and ``national in the highest sense.''

Some have questioned the constitutionality of this approach. Although I supported a constitutional amendment in the past, I disagree that a constitutional amendment is the only valid option. Nothing in the Constitution explicitly denies residents of this city a voice in Congress. Judges Patricia Wald and Kenneth Starr, both of whom served on the respected U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, have studied this approach to giving the District a vote in the House of Representatives. Both have concluded that it is constitutional. As they and others have noted, the Supreme Court has recognized that Congress has the power to treat District of Columbia citizens as citizens of a State in other contexts. For instance, the District is treated as a State for purposes of diversity jurisdiction in Federal courts, although article III, section 2 of the Constitution provides for diversity jurisdiction in suits ``between citizens of different States.''

It is impossible to believe that the Founding Fathers, having just finished a war to ensure democratic representation in America, would then insist on denying that representation to citizens living in the capital of their new Nation. Granting the District a vote in Congress is consistent with the spirit, as well as the letter, of our Constitution.

Even if you disagree about the bill's constitutionality, we should not filibuster this important measure. Surely even my colleagues who have a different view of the constitutionality can agree that this issue is important enough to deserve an up-or-down vote. The Senate's filibuster of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of its darkest days. We should not repeat that mistake now.

This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. When we passed the constitutional amendment in 1978, we had strong support from Republicans like Senators Goldwater, Dole, and Thurmond, in addition to Democrats. Today, the bill has strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. That is because this issue is so obviously an issue of simple justice.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. We heard moving testimony in favor of this bill from Congressman John Lewis, our distinguished colleague in the House of Representatives and a leader in the continuing struggle for equal voting rights. At the age of only 23, Congressman Lewis headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize a march on Washington. He and others were brutally assaulted during the fateful voting rights march at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, but their sacrifices helped inspire the progress that was to come.

Congressman Lewis reminded us of the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for equal voting rights in this country, and called on us to pass the DC Voting Rights Act. He reminded us of our obligation to give the District a vote in Congress.

I urge my colleagues to vote for cloture on this important bill and then vote for final passage of the bill so that we can finally correct this historic wrong and to do it on our watch.


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