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D.C. democracy

Senators need to step up and approve a bill to give the District of Columbia a seat in the House.

September 14, 2007

The Senate, which in recent days has been preoccupied with the state of democracy in Iraq, will soon have a chance to bolster democracy at home. The Democratic leadership is supporting legislation that would give residents of the District of Columbia a vote in the House of Representatives. The bill would increase the size of the House from 435 to 437 members, awarding an additional seat to Utah, which came the closest of any state to increasing its representation in the 2000 census.

The case for a vote for D.C. is obvious, but why a fourth House seat for Utah? One reason is the mathematical possibility that a 436-seat House might divide equally with no one to break ties, as the vice president can do in the Senate. For the more cynically minded, it is significant that Utah is a bright shade of red, meaning that a likely Democratic representative from D.C. would be offset by a Utah Republican until the next reapportionment.

Take your pick: Whatever the explanation for the Utah add-on, this compromise represents the only realistic hope for enfranchising more than half a million residents of the District -- and for retiring those "Taxation Without Representation" license plates. And, unlike statehood for D.C., representation in the House could be accomplished under Article I of the Constitution, which empowers Congress to legislate "in all cases whatsoever" involving the nation's capital.

Not everyone agrees. President Bush, not usually known for constitutional scruples, is said to be worried that House representation for D.C. would violate the part of Article I that says "the House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states."

That poses a legitimate question, and the legal debate transcends partisan and ideological lines. For example, Kenneth Starr, the solicitor general for President Bush's father and now the dean of the law school at Pepperdine University, thinks the legislation would be constitutional. But the ultimate decision should be made by the Supreme Court, which the current president was content to have rule on the constitutionality of another law about which his advisors had legal reservations: the McCain-Feingold campaign-reform act. He should choose the same course here.

Thanks to the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, residents of the District of Columbia may vote in presidential elections. That they continue to lack representation in even one house of the legislative branch is a scandal that Congress should rectify. To do so, proponents will need to muster the votes to overcome a possible filibuster in the Senate. But if senators join their House colleagues in speaking up for D.C. voting rights, Bush might see the wisdom of extending the blessings of democracy not just to Iraqis but to his own neighbors.

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