Cheh bill seeks vote for Norton on D.C. issues in Congress

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh speaks at her 2015 inauguration. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2015)

In an unconventional effort to give D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton a long-sought vote in the House of Representatives, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh introduced a bill Tuesday for the council to grant her that right.

Most of Cheh’s colleagues are in support of the legislation, and while it would only give Norton a vote on matters that deal with the District, the change would mean that she could actually vote on matters that affect only her constituents. As it stands now, D.C.’s delegate can speak in the House but can only vote in committee, not on final legislation.

Can D.C. just decide to give itself a vote in Congress, even a partial one?

Cheh said she is relying on court precedent and the Home Rule Charter, the city’s governing document that was passed by Congress in 1973. The charter gives the D.C. Council “the authority to amend federal legislation that applies exclusively to the District,” Cheh said.

One example is the Federal Traffic Act of 1925. Cheh said the council regularly amends that law, which only applies to the District, whenever it wants to tweak D.C.’s motor vehicle laws.

Cheh wants to apply that same principle to the District of Columbia Delegate Act of 1970, another federal law that deals exclusively with D.C. The council legislation would simply alter that 1970 bill to give the District’s delegate “the right of voting with regard to any matter restricted in its application exclusively in or to the District.”

Cheh said that the proposal is not “foolhardy,” and that lawyers and other experts have vetted the bill. “This council and the District government must exhaust every plausible avenue to obtain voting rights for our residents,” she said.

The idea originated from DC Appleseed, Cheh said. The advocacy group previously pushed for budget autonomy, and now executive director Walter Smith thinks the time is right for this latest step.

“I think the more visibility we bring to our lack of democracy, the better our chances of gaining that democracy,” Smith said.

As with all D.C. laws, Congress can quash it during its review period. But Smith called it unlikely that a disapproval resolution would be passed in both chambers of Congress within 30 days. In addition, if the council passes the legislation in the fall, there won’t be a federal appropriations bill for a while — a popular avenue to block D.C.’s laws by attaching provisions.

Cheh co-introduced the bill with Council members David Grosso, Charles Allen, Brianne Nadeau, Brandon Todd and Robert White. Anita Bonds, Phil Mendelson, Jack Evans and Vincent Gray co-sponsored.