D.C. Vote? Not So Fast

I'm well aware of the irony in the header. After all, it's only been 200-plus years that residents of the District of Columbia have been clamoring for the right to have a voting representative in Congress. But Tuesday's vote that cleared the way for the Senate to begin deliberating on the bill — the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act — is only a first step. Or, maybe, a millionth step. Whatever, it's not the final step. (The Senate passed the measure today, 61-37. More on that below.)

Five buttons in support of DC rights.

Congressional passage may be the easy part. hide caption

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First, how we got to where we are now. From the beginning, when Congress designed the District as the nation's capital, residents could not vote. They got the right to vote for president in 1964 and mayor in 1975, but their representative in Congress — officially, a delegate — cannot vote. (That was partially changed a few years ago when Congress voted to allow the delegate, since 1991 Eleanor Holmes Norton, to vote in committee, though still not on the House floor.)

The current bill would give DC a regular member of the House, with full voting rights like everyone else, and create a new congressional seat for Utah (which just missed out on getting an additional seat after the last census). Theoretically, the approach would make both parties happy, since it is assumed that the Democrats and Republicans would each increase their number in the House by one.

The last time the the Senate took up D.C. voting rights was in 1978, when Congress passed a constitutional amendment giving the District representation in both the House and Senate. The measure failed to win the required three-fourths of the state legislatures.

The last time the current legislation tried to make it to the Senate floor was in 2007, but it got only 57 votes — not enough to cut off debate. With increased Democratic numbers from last year's election, Tuesday's vote was 62-34. That paved the way for today's final vote.

And then there's the House, which is expected to approve the measure next week. But then what?

"Then" is the inevitable challenge in the courts. Most people agree that there should not be, as the D.C. license plate slogan attests, "taxation without representation." But if the District is not a state, why should it get a voting member of Congress?

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), the dean of the Senate who is always quoted with respect when it comes to constitutional issues — his opposition of the war in Iraq, for example — is not a fan of this bill either. As with the war, he questions its constitutionality. He says it should be done by a constitutional amendment. Byrd said, "My quarrel is not with the intent of the legislation, but with the vehicle with which the Congress is seeking to effect or bring about this change."

Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School makes the same argument.

I'm not convinced Byrd and Turley are wrong. It would be frustrating for a lot of people for Congress to pass this measure, President Obama to sign it, and then the courts rule sorry, this doesn't pass the smell test.

A sidebar question on this from Janet Warren of Washington, D.C.:

If this is about House seats, why does the Senate have to be involved?

The answer is simple. The full Congress passed a bill in 1929 establishing the total permanent House membership at 435. Since this proposal expands the size by two members — the D.C. seat and one in Utah — both chambers need to pass it.



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