Senate Votes in Favor of Giving DC House of Representatives Seat

February 26, 2009 06:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
In a 61-37 vote, the Senate passed a bill that would grant the District of Columbia a seat in the House of Representatives. Amendments to the bill that would lessen D.C.'s strict gun control laws may hamper the bill's passage, however.

Senate Passes D.C. Voting Rights Bill, Likely to Become Law Next Week

For the first time in 31 years, on Thursday the U.S. Senate approved a bill that would grant residents of the District of Columbia to vote for their own member of Congress.

The House of Representatives is believed to be giving the green light to the bill granting D.C. a seat in the House next week, pending debate over gun amendments. Should the bill pass both houses of Congress, President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

"The D.C. vote bill would expand the House permanently by two seats," marking the first time since 1913 that the House has been expanded, writes The Washington Post. "One would go to the strongly Democratic District, while the other would go to the next state in line to pick up a seat based on population count."

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.

If the bill is indeed passed, it still 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.

Another point of contention: the amendments to the D.C. voting bill that would end the District of Columbia's semiautomatic gun ban, roll back rules stipulating registration of firearms and put restrictions on the District's gun control laws. Supporters of the bill amendment include Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, both Virginia Democrats.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein came out strongly against the gun law amendment, however: "It's reckless, it's irresponsible, it will lead to more violence," she was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.

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.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines