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Residents of the District of Columbia deserve
congressional representation. But they are not well-served by a current
bill to give D.C. a full voting member in the House, offset by a new
House seat in Republican-leaning Utah. Congress will most likely pass
this bill, President Barack Obama will sign it and then the courts will
find it patently unconstitutional.
Supporters of D.C. voting rights will then have to turn their
efforts to much more difficult and conventional ways to grant the
District congressional representation, which will involve making
D.C. residents should be represented in Congress. They are citizens
of the United States who serve their country, pay taxes and live under
federal laws. D.C. is not a faraway territory; its citizens and the
citizens of other states commingle regularly. D.C.’s population, about
550,000, is the size of that of a small state. Only Wyoming has fewer
people, but slow-growing Vermont and North Dakota are only slightly
larger. And in the 1960s, the 23rd Amendment was ratified, giving D.C.
the right to participate in presidential elections. Why should D.C.
residents have the right to vote for president but not for
representatives in Congress?
There have traditionally been three constitutional, but difficult,
options for granting D.C. congressional representation. The first is to
admit the District of Columbia as a state. This could be done by a
simple piece of legislation that passes both houses of Congress and is
signed by the president. But some wonder whether the District has the
tax base to stand on its own, among other challenges.
The second would be a constitutional amendment, but this would
require a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate and
ratification by three-quarters of the states. Finally, there is the
option of retrocession, merging the District with Maryland. After all,
the District was originally part of Maryland. This would require
Congress passing a law and the consent of D.C. and Maryland.
The elephant in the room is the elephants themselves: the
Republicans and the question of political balance. The District of
Columbia is not an abstract place, but a very real and very Democratic
jurisdiction. While many Republicans see the justice in D.C.
representation, they view it as coming at their expense. Admit D.C. as
a state, and Democrats get one more vote in the House and, more
significantly, two additional votes in the Senate. No party willingly
gives an advantage to its rival. And throughout our history, we have
had numerous cases of states admitted to the union in pairs to preserve
One appeal of D.C. merging with Maryland is that District residents
would be represented in the Senate, but there would be no net increase
in Democratic senators.
Frustrated with the traditional avenues, former Rep. Tom Davis and
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton came up with a new approach: Pass a
simple piece of legislation expanding the size of the House from 435 to
437 and designating that one of those seats would go to the District of
Columbia (the other would go to Utah, which missed getting an extra
seat by a hair after the last census reapportionment).
The bill rests on an expansive and constitutionally dubious premise.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to “exercise exclusive
legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District,” a power that
courts have interpreted broadly. Proponents of the bill argue that this
clause gives Congress the power to treat the District like a state and
to grant it congressional representation.
But this clause is more accurately read to mean that Congress may
rule over the District like a state government rules over a state. It
can set up the form of local government for the District or rule it
directly. But this clause does not give Congress the power to do what
only the Constitution can do: decide which entities are represented in
The Constitution is explicit; only states have representatives in
the House and the Senate. The bottom line for D.C. representation in
Congress is that we must either change the Constitution or make the
District a state or part of a state.
By pursuing the Norton Bill, advocates of D.C. voting are going down
a long detour and wasting valuable time. The real answer lies with one
of the three traditional, constitutional and politically difficult
avenues. And to successfully pursue one of those courses means dealing
with Republican concerns that D.C. voting will hurt them politically.
The justice of the cause does not mean that compromise is not
necessary; compromise is more necessary because it serves a just end.
John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.
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