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Statesman Journal

D.C. Residents Lack Equal Representation

BY Ron Eachus

20 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Statesman Journal. All rights reserved. 

Before we start paving the way for Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for president, we ought to first make sure that all our citizens have full and equal representation in Congress.

The Austrian-born Schwarzenegger's popularity and positive ratings as California's governor have Republicans pushing a constitutional amendment to allow an immigrant who has been a naturalized citizen for 20 years to run for president or vice president. Another popular governor, Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, a Canadian-born Democrat, also would be able to run.

Unlike other GOP amendments prohibiting activities such as abortion, flag burning or gay marriage, this one actually has merit. Instead of prohibiting something, it removes restrictions and allows increased rights to citizens.

But as the debate proceeds, someone should point out that the residents of Washington, D.C., don't yet have representation in Congress.

A foreign-born citizen might not be able to run for president, but a foreign-born citizen living anywhere in any of the 50 states has representation in Congress. A native-born citizen in the district of Columbia does not.

Until 1961, D.C. residents couldn't even vote for president.

When Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, both had populations of less than the district. Washington, D.C., was the nation's ninth-largest city; its population of 800,000 was larger than those of 13 states.

The inequities were obvious, and in less time than it took to repeal Prohibition, the 23rd Amendment, allowing citizens of the district to vote for president, was ratified in 1961.

Still, the status of second-class citizen was preserved. Regardless of its population, the city was limited to the same number of electoral votes as the least populous state.

In 1970, Congress allowed D.C. citizens to have a nonvoting delegate in Congress, but that only put them on par with American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

In 1978, Congress passed to the states an amendment giving D.C. full representation in Congress. Then-Sen. Bob Dole called it right and just.

Sen. Edward Kennedy predicted it would fall victim to the "four toos" - "too black, too liberal, too urban and too Democratic." He was right. Oregon was one of only 16 states to ratify the amendment out of the 38 required.

The Schwarzenegger amendment likely will fall victim to similar prejudices and partisanship. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that requiring the president to be native-born isn't unfair because, "Your allegiance is driven by your birth." That kind of thinking was appropriate when loyalties after the Revolutionary War still were in question, not in today's America.

A nonnative citizen can be governor of a state, and many governors have become president. As for allegiance, Madeleine Albright (Czechoslovakia), Henry Kissinger (Germany) and Christian Herter (France) all served as secretary of state.

I have no illusions about the likelihood of an amendment for D.C. congressional representation being revived. Not after it gave John Kerry 90 percent of its votes for president.

We managed to eliminate slavery and give women the right to vote, but we still haven't made full citizens of residents of our nation's capital. They have all the obligations of citizenship, including the payment of federal taxes and service in our armed forces, but they have no representation in Congress.

The foreign-born who want the right to run for president have a good case, but they should go to the back of the line.

Ron Eachus of Salem is a former legislator and former chairman of the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

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