Jun 29, 2018

US Senator Paul Strauss Addresses the EU Parliament

On 27 June 2018, Members of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the United States (D-US) met UNPO Member Senator Paul Strauss from the District of Columbia (DC) for an exchange of views on the struggle for the democratic recognition of DC as a federal state of the US. Organised by UK Labour MEP Alex Mayer (S&D), the UNPO and the Secretariat of the D-US, the debate inaugurated a series of events on the topic at the European Parliament. The event also benefitted from the participation of actor and comedian Richard Schiff, a supporter of the DC Statehood campaign.

“Anyone who has visited the American capital has noticed it’’ explains UK Labour MEP Alex Mayer referring to number plates found on many Washingtonian’s cars: “Taxation Without Representation”. It was this mantra that drove her to co-host an event with the UNPO to give a platform for Senator Paul Strauss (D.) to campaign for DC statehood, not just locally and nationally, but internationally in Brussels. Indeed, the European Parliament, Senator Strauss stressed, takes human rights and the maintenance of high democratic standards very seriously.

The speakers included Ms Lucia Parrucci on behalf of UNPO and Mr Richard Schiff, who played the President’s Special Adviser Toby Ziegler in the hit DC-based series The West Wing. Schiff gave an impassioned speech about the dangers facing American democracy. Part of the danger, he said, is the quality of the electoral representation and the case of Washington DC encapsulates this, as 700,000 US citizens pay more taxes than the federal average yet their elected representatives, including Mr Strauss, have no voting rights in the House.

The Exchange of Views in the Parliament was a chance for the speakers and UNPO to raise awareness of this injustice in American democracy and build transatlantic ties to help improve our democratic processes further.

An international struggle

Senator Strauss took the time to explain the question that is usually on everyone’s lips when they see Washington D.C as a member of the UNPO: why seek international support for what seems a priori a local issue? Strauss affirmed his optimism about taking his struggle internationally, explaining that the pressure the legislative organs around the world can put on foreign policy decision-making is not to be underestimated and that the European Parliament is a great defender of causes such as this one. He also mentioned that There will also be numerous forums where MEPs will be able to meet their American counterparts to raise the issue, such as the visit of 70 MEPs to the American capital next year.          

The Elephant in the Room: The US's lack of bipartisan initiative

During the questions and answers session, Jim Carver MEP, a strong supporter of Senator Strauss’s campaign, raised the question as to whether this was a left-right issue on both sides of the Atlantic or it could be resolved through bipartisan action.

Strauss was quick to emphasise that he had received support from various sides in the European political context, but the main stumbling block was still the “Grand Old Party” on the other side of the Atlantic and its lack of appetite for enabling the US capital to potentially bolster Democratic majorities. The Senate is notoriously close in terms of seats, with the Republicans holding a small majority. Strauss explained the difficulties he faces: “I was talking to a representative from Iowa [Stephen King of the Republican Party] and he told me that if another place had a similar situation to Washington and was trending Republican, I would be against it [granting them statehood and thus extra seats in the House of Representatives and Senate].”

Senator Strauss insisted that this is not the case and his membership of UNPO is part of proving a commitment to addressing flaws in representative democracy and human rights worldwide, regardless of left-right political positioning. At UNPO Presidency meetings Strauss would hear out struggles with greater levels of repression than the DC one but the core universal principle of addressing flaws in the world’s democracies is one that should apply no matter where.

A Blue Wave Incoming?

Next on the agenda was the question of how the Democrats would fair in the Congressional midterms. Schiff explained that the US suffers from voter issues and gerrymandering and the actor even alleged to have seen vote fixing in some districts. But with the current administration’s unpopularity with liberal Americans, Schiffer says they may have learnt their lesson in terms of picking Presidents. The question, to him, is whether a legislative issue, outside of the Presidential race, will translate into a galvanisation of Democrat voters to deliver the majority they need to pass Washington DC’s statehood. The other issue is that the bill could still be in violation of the Constitution and thus the Supreme Court, with a generally conservative interpretation of the document, could strike DC statehood down.