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Big Love

Despite the caricature of Nancy Pelosi as a San Franciscoliberal--or, perhaps, because of it--the speaker-elect has beenexercising an abundance of caution lately, putting the kibosh onany immoderate initiative that threatens to bubble forth from theDemocratic caucus. Before Pelosi has even officially grasped thespeaker's gavel, she has dismissed Charlie Rangel's call to bringback the draft; told John Conyers to cool it with his talk ofimpeaching President Bush; and quashed Marty Meehan and BarneyFrank's attempt to reverse the "don't ask, don't tell" policy ongays in the military.

On the whole, Pelosi's efforts to steer a centrist course representsmart politics. (Much as we would like to see the odious "don'task, don't tell" policy retired, it probably makes sense to fightother battles first.) But there is one immoderate initiativecurrently circulating on Capitol Hill that is worthy of Pelosi'simmediate attention: voting rights in the House of Representativesfor the District of Columbia.

Indeed, the D.C. voting rights initiative isn't even thatimmoderate: Its leading advocate in the House, after all, is aRepublican--Virginia Representative Tom Davis. Earlier this year,he and his Democratic colleague Eleanor Holmes Norton, theDistrict's nonvoting House delegate, introduced legislation thatwould expand the House from 435 to 437 members, with one new seatgoing to Utah and the other going to the District. Since Utah is asstaunchly Republican as D.C. is Democratic, the trade--vanilla statefor chocolate city--wouldn't affect the House's partisan balance.Even so, the bill languished in the Judiciary Committee all year.And its last hope for passage this Congress was recently snuffedout when the Republican leadership, citing "a number ofconstitutional concerns," refused to bring it to the floor for avote during the just-completed lame-duck session.

This magazine makes no brief for Utah--or its bid for an extracongressional seat. (Although its argument sounds plausible enoughto us: State leaders, noting that Utah would have needed just 856more residents to earn another seat, allege that the last U.S.census didn't count 11,000 Mormon missionaries who were away fromhome at the time.) But the continuing disenfranchisement of D.C.residents is a national disgrace that must end. District citizenspay federal taxes; they abide by federal laws; they fight--anddie--in America's wars, including the current one. And yet, whenthese matters are put before Congress, D.C. residents have no say.Norton is allowed to vote in committee and draft legislation; but,when the matter comes to the House floor for an actual vote, she isforced to sit on her hands. At a time when the United States isworking to export democracy abroad, democracy is being denied tothose people who live in America's seat of government. As Davis hassaid, "It's hard to make a straight-faced argument that the capitalof the free world shouldn't have a vote in Congress."

Historically, Republican reluctance to grant full congressionalrepresentation to D.C. has its roots not just in partisancalculation but also in racial politics. For a long time,Washington was easily demonized as the city of Marion Barry, withall that implied. But it has been years since District residentstoppled their corrupt petty despot--without the help of the 82ndAirborne. For their part, Democrats have long paid lip service tothe notion that the District deserves voting rights, making it astaple of their national party platforms since 1988. But, in recentyears, they have not been in a position to do anything about it.Now they are.

It is probably too much, at this moment, to hope for the optimalsolution to this problem: D.C. statehood. Meanwhile, plans to haveMaryland or Virginia annex D.C. are seriously handicapped by bothstates' unwillingness to do so. But the Davis-Norton compromisewould be a practical first step toward remedying the city'ssecond-class status. And all that stands between the proposal and afloor vote is Nancy Pelosi. Fortunately, she has sent the rightsignals so far, signing on as a co-sponsor of the Davis-Nortonmeasure during the last Congress. Now she should publicly commit tosteering the legislation through the House as early as possible inthe new term.

Anything less will be a disappointment. The incoming speaker has anopportunity to ameliorate a great injustice, and she should make themost of it. While Pelosi may live in fear of being branded a SanFrancisco liberal, she could do a lot worse than being known asWashington, D.C.'s savior.