One of the embarrassments–or at least it should be an embarrassment–of the US political system is the absence of any voting representation in federal affairs for residents of the capital territory, the District of Columbia. That may be about to change, incrementally. No, DC is not about to become a state or state-equivalent, with full Senate as well as House representation, as it should. However, DC may soon get a voting Representative in the House.
In classic American style, however, this (partial) breakthrough for citizenship and democracy will not come about because it is such an obviously right thing to do, but through a partisan logroll. It seems that Utah politicos are upset that it just missed out on an additional House seat after the 2000 census.* So, how about this solution: DC gets its seat (sure to be held more or less in perpetuity by a Black Caucus Democrat) and Utah gets one, too (sure to be held more or less in perpetuity by a white Republican).
Utah’s grievance comes with a religious special-status plea, to boot! The Guardian: “Utah insists that the 2000 census undercounted the state’s population because so many of the state’s young Mormon men were out of state or out of the country doing missionary work.” I wonder how many other states might have experienced undercounts because residents–less identifiable as a bloc than Utah Mormons–were abroad.
Of course, there is a better and simpler way to deal with situations akin to Utah’s without special claims. Even the alleged undercount showed Utah had grown, and other states grew yet lost seats that they already had to faster-growing states. The solution is to let the House grow as the population grows. Then House representation would be less an interstate (and interpartisan) source of conflict than it is under the fixed size, which has been at 435 since 1912, when the USA had one-third the population it has now!* Well, at least Utah’s grievance may lead to the right outcome for DC–or, rather, half the right outcome.
Now, what about representation in the Senate? There is no objective argument for denying residents of the capital territory representation in either house of the national legislature. Several federal systems have special territories for their capitals, which thus give them fewer sovereign rights as units of the federation than the states have. However, no other federation deprives its capital residents of representation in both houses of the federal legislature. In most cases, the capital territory is represented as if it were a state.*
That would require statehood (which requires only ordinary legislation) or a constitutional amendment to grant a non-state territory entitlement to representation in the Senate. Apparently, there is some question as to whether Congress can grant DC a voting House member through ordinary legislation. As the Guardian notes:
The Constitution says that the House shall be composed of members chosen by “the people of the several states.” But it also gives Congress the power “to exercise exclusive legislation” over the seat of the federal government, interpreted by some to mean that Congress can, if it wants, give D.C. voting rights.
Whatever the situation with respect to the constitutional question, it is unconscionable to treat DC residents as second-class citizens just because they happen to live near federal government buildings. Can anyone seriously argue that this situation would still be tolerated today if the District had a different racial composition to its population? It is a national shame. The partisan logroll that may remedy its lack of House vote is a step forward (in outcome, of not process). But it is only one step. (And see the bolded parts of the “other blog action” below for some reasons to doubt that even this is a step forward.)
*1. Other than temporary increases when Hawaii and Alaska entered the union in 1959. The House reverted to 435 after the 1960 census, meaning other states lost members as of 1962 to ensure seats for the new states.
*2. A partial exception is Australia, where the capital territory (ACT) has two senators, whereas each state has twelve. Two senators put ACT on par with the Northern Territory. In the USA–also nearly unique among federations–territories (e.g. Puerto Rico and Guam) also do not have congressional representation (aside from nonvoting “delegates” in the House, as DC likewise has). [Thanks to Alan for correcting an error in the original version of this note; see his comment for further detail.]
Other blog action on this topic:
(Surprisingly little action in the blogosphere on this so far, actually.)
Current DC nonvoting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, at The Hill Blog, calls this bill “An easy test for Democrats.”
Undernews disagrees with Norton and claims the bill is a “trick to increase GOP power.” Alluding to the constitutional argument, it says, “if Congress approves this measure, Utah will have a new seat while DC’s status will be headed for a long wrangle in the court. Result: one more GOP vote in the House as least until the case is decided. Plus Utah gains one more GOP electoral vote out of the deal.” (My emphasis; also note that DC’s electoral votes are not affected, as it has had three electors since the ratification of the Twenty-Third Amendment to the US Constitution in 1961.)
Rusty at why.i.hate.dc is not too pleased with the logroll aspect of the compromise, either: “Let me explain to Rep. Davis [R-Va., and co-sponsor] and Del. Norton how representative democracy works. The people elect representative to vote on their behalf. It’s not meant to preserve political balance. If an area that’s 90% Democrat is having their human rights trampled on, giving Republicans an extra vote to offset that new vote is not an appropriate solution. Someone explain to me the purpose of having a DC vote when Republicans in Utah get a new vote of their own. Everything cancels out. DC residents are no better off.” (Posted in December when a previous effort to pass this legislation failed; again, my emphasis.)
Shining City Atop a Hill is pleased.