Editorial: A Civil Right, on Hold

Disenfranchised D.C. residents could use a hand from President Obama.

For Immediate Release:

May 21, 2009

Contact:Editorial Board

Washington Post

IN THE THREE months since the U.S. Senate approved the D.C. voting rights bill, dates targeted for a House vote have come and gone with no action. An amendment eliminating most gun laws in the District and stripping city officials of their ability to regulate guns holds the bill hostage, stymieing its supporters. Now time is running out, and House Democratic leaders could use an assist from the White House.

The bill giving D.C. residents a voting member of the House of Representatives won Senate approval on Feb. 26; the House was expected to take quick action. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) set a vote in early March, but that was pushed to April and then put off again. Now, despite promises of action before Memorial Day, the bill has been delayed once more. Though Mr. Hoyer's commitment is unquestioned, he hasn't been able to muster the 218 votes needed to advance the bill to the floor without the onerous gun amendment that was added to it by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). So the bill is stalled as its supporters quietly debate whether having a long-sought voice in government is worth the loss of local control and the potentially deadly consequences of having gun laws that would be among the most permissive in the nation.

It is infuriating that this unacceptable trade-off is even on the table. We have to wonder why Democratic supporters of the bill, and that includes President Obama, aren't doing more to define the real issues. Foremost among these is, of course, the civil rights of some half a million American citizens. As the first African American president, Mr. Obama is in a unique position to talk about the injustice of disenfranchising the people of the District, many of whom are African American. Mr. Obama's election gave heart to the residents of the city, who thought they would finally have a champion in the White House. But to date his administration has been reticent.

This is also noticeable in the administration's apparent unwillingness to engage in a discussion of the real-world implications of the Ensign amendment. If the bill is approved with the gun amendment, the District would be the only place in the nation where individuals could cross state lines to purchase firearms; and .50-caliber, armor-piercing rifles and other military-style assault weapons would be permitted. Yet when we asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano how this might affect security in the nation's capital, she made it clear that she was unwilling to discuss the issue. To do so is to take on the powerful gun lobby, which is using its muscle to threaten lawmakers; Democrats seem to feel they are particularly vulnerable. Though Mr. Obama has much on his plate, there should surely be time for finally bringing democracy to the nation's capital -- while keeping it safe.

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