Political forces align behind plan to give D.C. a House vote

Reliably Republican Utah also gains seat under bill before Congress

November 23, 2006|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- For decades, efforts to give the District of Columbia a voting representative in Congress have run into a wall. Constitutional amendments failed to win the states' support. Ad campaigns about "taxation without representation" did not help.

Now, unexpected political forces are aligning behind a plan to give the district a House vote - at the same time giving Utah a new seat in Congress - when lawmakers return for their lame-duck session in early December.

"This is closest we've come in at least 30 years," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DCVote, an umbrella lobbying group. "The stars are aligned on this."

The unlikely union of the district and Utah is the brainchild of Republican Rep. Tom Davis. As representative for Northern Virginia, Davis offered his proposal to "take the partisanship out of this."

Past efforts to empower Washington residents came up against the partisan reality that a Republican Congress was unlikely to create a seat in the district, a Democratic stronghold with a population that is 57 percent black.

The problem for Utah is that the 2000 census left it 857 residents short of a fourth House member - a decision the state protested to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the census failed to count the thousands of Mormons serving abroad as missionaries. Utah lost the case.

For the district, not being declared a state by the Founding Fathers means the city's 515,000 residents pay federal taxes, cast votes in presidential elections and serve in the military without having a voting member in the House or the Senate. The district does have a nonvoting, at-large delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton.

By balancing the district with reliably Republican Utah, Davis won bipartisan approval by the Government Reform Committee in May for his bill, which would raise the number of House members to 437.

In the House Judiciary Committee, legal experts questioned the legitimacy of giving Utah an at-large seat, which was the plan at the time because Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. balked at enacting a redistricting plan to carve out a new fourth district.

But after Democrats swept to power in the midterm election, some officials in Utah worried about their cause in a Democratic Congress. So the Republican governor called the Legislature into special session, beginning next week, to approve a four-district map.

"I'm confident we can do that," said state Sen. Curt Bramble, incoming majority leader. "Whether or not Congress will act, that's out of our control."

The folks at DCVote are banking on it. They have an ad campaign to move public opinion - after internal polling found 78 percent of Americans think district residents already have representatives and senators. And they are lobbying the Senate, where they say their best weapon is Jack Kemp, the former congressman and vice presidential candidate, who has been privately buttonholing former colleagues.

"My argument to them is that you can't send residents of the city of D.C. to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight for the right to vote of people there without allowing the residents of D.C. to elect a member of Congress," Kemp said.

Another weapon in DCVote's arsenal is Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton. Starr, now dean of Pepperdine University's School of Law in California, wrote in a widely quoted article with retired Chief Judge Patricia M. Wald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that Congress has the constitutional right to give district residents a voting representative.

But Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law professor, says the district portion of the bill is "flagrantly unconstitutional" because the Constitution gives representation to "the people of the several states."

It would take a constitutional amendment to give the district unquestioned congressional and Senate representation, he said. Addressing it legislatively means another Congress could revoke the voting privilege later.

"This is the equivalent of having Rosa Parks go to the middle of the bus, the ultimate compromise of principle," Turley said. "Either D.C. residents are entitled to be full citizens or not."

If Congress passes the bill, most observers say they believe President Bush would sign it.

The larger issue for Democrats in Congress is whether they want to risk a constitutional challenge to the district representative while Utah's new representative keeps voting. "The irony here," Turley said, "is that Utah could get an extra seat in Congress only to have the district seat struck down as unconstitutional."

But Davis says he thinks Congress is eager to pass the bill: "Republicans have been slower to the table, but once it is explained [as a civil-rights issue], they understand it is the right thing to do.

"This is an anomaly of history, and it needs to be corrected."

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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