After Years of Struggle, DC May Finally Get House Seat

February 24, 2009 02:03 PM
by Cara McDonough
Democratic gains in recent years may result in a bill that grants a full House seat for the nation’s capital as early as next month.

Supporters of Voting Rights Hopeful

Washington, D.C., residents trumpet the problem on their license plates: Taxation Without Representation. Because the capital is not a state and not part of any state, it is not entitled to any representatives in Congress. That may be about to change, however.

A Senate vote this week could determine whether or not the 600,000 people who live in D.C. get a full vote in the house. A similar measure failed two years ago but, because Democrats picked up seven seats in the 2008 election, supporters believe D.C. may finally gain representation in the federal government.

But even if the bill is passed, it could be challenged in court. The District of Columbia isn’t a state, and the U.S. Constitution states that House representation is given “to the people of several states," The Washington Post reports. Therefore, opponents say the move would be unconstitutional.

Some opposition is to be expected; the bill would change the principles adopted by the Founding Fathers. Congress took control of the newly created capital city in 1801, but decided not to provide the city’s residents with voting rights, the Associated Press reports.

D.C. residents have since gained privileges other U.S. residents take for granted, including the right to vote in presidential elections, granted by the 23rd Amendment in 1961, and the right to elect a mayor and other city officials as dictated by the 1973 Home Rule Act.

Many say House representation is long overdue and, for now, they are optimistic. And they’ve adopted Constitutional language of their own—that which gives Congress legislative authority over the District “in all cases whatsoever” as evidence that their argument is a valid one.

Background: Past attempts and D.C. history

This isn’t the first time supporters of D.C. representation have gotten their hopes up.

A constitutional amendment approved by Congress in 1978 would have given D.C. residents representation in both the House and the Senate, but it was not ratified by the necessary three-fourths of state legislatures.
In May 2006, legislation introduced by Rep Tom Davis, R-Va., and District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, would have given the city a House seat as a balance for a new seat for Utah.

“It is simply inexcusable that residents of the District of Columbia, the capital of the free world … do not have a representative with a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, the People’s House,” Davis said at the time.

Norton, who is allowed to cast votes in committees and participate in House floor debate but can’t vote on the floor, said that, ultimately, she would like to see D.C. have voting rights in both the House and Senate, but said she does not yet have enough support for such a measure.

It turned out there wasn’t quite ample support for Davis’s bill either. It passed easily in the House, but fell three votes short of the 60 needed to pass in the Senate.

Bills in favor of giving D.C. a House seat are up against a difficult opponent: the nation’s history. When the Founding Fathers created the District of Columbia, “they wanted a small enclave for the federal government that was completely separate from the states,” Time magazine explained in a 2002 article.

Then, the situation worked, according to Time: Congress had a small area it could control. But now, the decision has created “an anomaly of a town” where 600,000 residents have absolutely no representation in national government.

Opinion & Analysis: What’s the holdup?

The issue has been argued for years, so why doesn’t the District have fair representation already? That’s the question irking Martin Austermuhle, who writes about the issue on the D.C.-centric blog DCist.

“Very few people actually argue that the way things are is just fine. National polls on the issue find that when Americans are informed about the District’s lack of voting rights, they’re in favor of fixing the problem by a large majority,” he writes. Still, the nation has “been stuck in the same cycle of complain, debate, hope and fail for decades.”

Richard L. Hasen acknowledges in Slate that the Constitution does not give D.C. the same voting rights as the rest of the country. But the lack of representation, he says in a thorough opinion piece on the issue, “is an example of what law professors call ‘constitutional stupidities.’ Given this country’s commitment to equal voting rights for all, there’s no legitimate policy reason to deny congressional representation to the District’s residents.”

Even though the bill would probably end up in courts, and may even be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress should pass it if only to put the issue on the front burner, Hasen says.

Opponents, however, stand strong in their argument that establishing a House seat for D.C. is clearly unconstitutional.

Rep. Tom Price, R.-Ga., wrote in March 2007 for Conservative Web site Human Events that the D.C. Voting Rights Bill then before the House was “a flatly unconstitutional, historically egregious bill.” He did go on to say that he believes it unfair that the city lacks any representation, but that “the contorted logic some have used to justify this bill is quite troubling.”

Hans von Spakovsky, a visiting legal scholar at the conservative group The Heritage Foundation, recently summed up his position that the bill is unconstitutional, stating: “There are many different provisions in the Constitution that make it very clear that to have a representative in the House of Representatives, you have to be a state,”

He went on to say that the Founding Fathers did not want the nation’s capital to be subject to political pressure from the state government.

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