Two wrongs and no right for D.C. voters

October 04, 2006|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- When it comes to political coloration, the District of Columbia is bluer than Lake Tahoe. In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry got 48 percent of the vote nationally and 62 percent in his home state of Massachusetts. But in Washington, he got 90 percent.

District residents have long chafed at their lack of voting representation in Congress. They have only a delegate, who takes part in House proceedings but has no vote.

But given their Democratic leanings, the plight of Washingtonians has never aroused much sympathy in the Republican Party.

Life, however, is full of surprises. In a monument to implausibility, a House committee recently approved a bill to give the district a voting member in the House, apparently on simple grounds of equity. Republicans acted to neutralize the effect on the House by creating a fourth seat for Utah, which is expected to fill it with a Republican to balance the Democrat the district will presumably elect. The House would expand from 435 to 437 members.

The effort to fully enfranchise Washingtonians is a welcome and overdue recognition of the deep injustice of the status quo. It's probably also unconstitutional.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, residents of that particular area were citizens of either Maryland or Virginia. But when those states ceded land to the federal government to create a capital, the inhabitants suddenly became nonvoters because they didn't reside in any state.

For a long time, their second-class citizenship went unaddressed. After all, lots of Americans were second-class citizens in those days. But once the franchise had been extended to blacks, women and 18-year-olds, the anomaly became too glaring to tolerate. In 1961, a constitutional amendment was ratified granting D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections.

But that did nothing to provide them a voice in Congress. In 1970, D.C. got a voice - but only a voice, in the form of a nonvoting delegate in the House.

Washingtonians have pressed for some remedy for their limbo status. A constitutional amendment to give D.C. two senators and a representative failed. An effort to gain outright statehood went nowhere.

The District of Columbia Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act of 2006 sets its sights lower: Instead of two senators and a House member, D.C. would get only a House member. Recently, the House Government Reform Committee passed the measure by a 29-4 vote, with Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, announcing, "We've set partisanship aside to right a fundamental wrong."

That they have. But they've done it in a way that does violence to the Constitution, which doesn't allow the legislative branch to create new House seats at will. It says, "The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states." D.C. is not a state.

Former special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr and retired federal appellate Judge Patricia Wald defended the bill in The Washington Post. Because the Constitution gives it the authority "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the district, they argued, Congress is free to give it a House member. But federal courts have ruled to the contrary.

Correcting the wrong done to Washingtonians would be much easier if we didn't have to choose between amending the Constitution and creating a 51st state. But in politics, some remedies are bad, and some are good. And some are too good to be true.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears in The Sun on Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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