Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Taxation now, representation pending

Congress is moving forward on a bill to give Washington, D.C., residents a full voting representative in the House.

As a compromise for adding a representative from the heavily Democratic District, the bill would also grant an additional seat to to Utah, a Republican state that is next in line to get a seat thanks to its growing population. Thus, the House would increase i size from 435 to 437 members.

The bill has a dubious future. It will likely pass the House, but it remains to be seen if it can get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. And Bush may veto it. If it does become law, it will almost certainly face legal challenges.

On the one hand, it's a matter of simple fairness to give D.C. residents representation in Congress, just like any other citizen. Right now they have a non-voting delegate, like other federal territories. But unlike those territories, they are part of the United States and thus deserve more rights.

On the other hand, it's not at all clear that representation can be achieved by simple statute. The Constitution seems to limit representation to the States, because Article I, Section 2 states that "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.... Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers."

On the third hand, D.C. residents are subject to direct taxes, which may imply that the phrases I quoted are not restrictive -- i.e., Congress can extend representation to geographic entities other than states. Then there's the power described under Section 8, which established the legal foundation for the District of Columbia and gave Congress full authority over it -- including, proponents argue, the authority to give it Congressional representation.

Me, I think that argument is suspect. It took the 23rd Amendment to give D.C. residents the right to vote in Presidential elections. Perhaps that was a case of "better safe than sorry", but if it took an amendment to do that, it would seem to require another amendment to give them full representation in Congress. And given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, I don't give the bill good odds of surviving Constitutional review.

But at least it's continuing the conversation, and if this route is blocked the next step would be to propose such an amendment -- a time-consuming measure that wouldn't gather serious steam until after the 2008 election. Which is just as well. Democrats can dream of having a wider majority in Congress and perhaps control of the White House by then, which would make getting the amendment through Congress that much easier. After that it would be in the hands of the states, and would probably take years to either pass or die.

Is this the most crucial issue facing the nation? No. But it's kind of important to D.C. residents. I can understand people opposing this particular bill on constitutional grounds; but I can't imagine them opposing the general principle on anything other than partisan political grounds. Basic fairness and equal representation says it's the right thing to do. So if Congress members or the White House don't like this bill, they should signal their support for a Constitutional amendment to achieve the same end.

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Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

It's not clear why the GOP is so opposed to giving voting rights to the District, other than they know they wouldn't like who the residents vote for. It's not like DC would have a lot of power in Congress. I can understand, to some extent, why they wouldn't want DC to be a state--it would be a very liberal state and you can make the argument that, as the Nation's Capital, it should not be seen as a partisan redoubt (although everyone knows that DC is very liberal). Given the GOP's loathing for Washington, in general, it seems to me they would prefer that it have to take care of its own matters rather than have Congress act as a paternalist.

3/14/2007 3:54 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I think the "partisan redoubt" argument is the only one that makes sense, coupled with fear that this might lead to agitation for a Senate seat as well, which would have a much stronger effect on the balance of power than one extra representative. That one seems clear, however: D.C. isn't a state, so it doesn't get senators. You couldn't give it senators without a constitutional amendment specifically doing so.

3/14/2007 4:14 PM  

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