D.C. Needs Voting Voice

THE United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, is widely lauded as about as close to a perfect secular governing document as human ingenuity has achieved. But it has its flaws, mainly resulting from developments unforeseen by any of the Founding Fathers.

One matter that recently was thrust into public view again is statehood for the District of Columbia. Many of the 600,000 residents in Washington, D.C., as well as other Americans, argue that it is woefully underrepresented.

The city is governed by an elected mayor; the present incumbent is Sharon Pratt Kelly. But its budget and other activities require congressional approval. Washington residents are represented in the House by a nonvoting delegate - Eleanor Holmes Norton, a highly regarded lawyer and scholar. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson is the nonvoting delegate to the Senate. All three of these top politicians are black, reflecting Washington's predominately black makeup: the 1990 US Census showed that 65 percent of its residents were ``non-Hispanic black.'' It also is a relatively poor city with a high crime rate, and its share of typical urban problems.

Many who lament Washington's lack of representation in Congress feel that if it were predominantly white, the district by now would be a state, with the usual complement of two US senators and at least two members of the House of Representatives. That feeling is not without cause: During the 1950s and early '60s, the chairmen of congressional committees with jurisdiction over the district, mainly Southerners, generally blocked attempts to give the district's increasingly black majority greater home-rule authority.

The Constitution gives Congress exclusive legislative authority over the seat of government. Yet the Founding Fathers, living in an agrarian society, could hardly have envisioned that the seat of American government would someday become a large, crowded metropolis with a few precious vestiges of its beginnings. Over the years, lawmakers have given the capital increasing amounts of home rule.

On Nov. 21 the House rejected statehood for the District of Columbia by a 227 to 153 vote. Yet proponents intend to raise the issue again. An alternative: Give the district's two delegates full voting privileges. This would continue to acknowledge the city's unique political status while giving residents at least a two-vote hope of influencing the decisions on Capitol Hill that affect them.

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