Taking the Critics at Their Word

The U.S. House and Senate are both primed to pass the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009. If enacted, the bill would give the District a voting Representative (instead of its current nonvoting Delegate) in the House. Utah would also obtain an additional House seat, thus rebutting the argument that the bill is a partisan power-grab rather than an honest effort to provide representation to the long-suffering citizens of the District.

None of the Act's opponents, of which there are many, have claimed that the District should remain unrepresented in Congress indefinitely. Instead, they have based their objections on the bill's alleged unconstitutionality, and contended that other means--a constitutional amendment, statehood for the District, retrocession to Maryland, etc.--should be employed to give the District representation. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), for example, testified about the "unfairness of Washington, D.C.'s taxation without representation," but argued that a constitutional amendment is the way to fix the problem. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) similarly stated that "citizens of the District . . . deserve to enjoy full representation in Congress," but recommended retrocession to Maryland as the remedy.

The Act's adversaries are correct that its constitutionality is uncertain (though there are certainly strong arguments for its validity). But the problem with the approaches of Rep. Gohmert, Rep. Chaffetz, et al., quite simply, is that they are politically dead in the water. A constitutional amendment to give the District representation in Congress passed the House and Senate in 1978, but then was ratified by only sixteen state legislatures--far short of the needed thirty-eight. There is no indication that such an amendment would fare any better today. Similarly, the citizens of the District voted for statehood in 1982, but Congress has steadfastly refused to admit "New Columbia" to the Union ever since. When the statehood bill was last seriously debated in the House, it lost by a margin of almost two-to-one. As for retrocession to Maryland, neither Congress nor Maryland has shown much enthusiasm for the idea, and the Twenty-Third Amendment (which enables D.C. to participate in presidential elections) might have to be repealed before Maryland could reclaim the District.

In contrast, the D.C. House Voting Rights Act has the votes right now to pass in both the House and Senate, while also enjoying the support of President Obama. If the Act is upheld by the courts, then representation for the District--the professed goal of both the Act's supporters and its opponents--will become an immediate reality. The District's odds of eventually getting a voice in Congress would also be improved even if the Act is stricken. Judicial intervention to strip the District of its new Representative would likely provoke controversy and shine a spotlight on the injustice of the undemocratic status quo. Politicians would thus find it more difficult to object to a constitutional amendment, statehood, or retrocession, and they would no longer be able to make the argument that something like the Act should be tried first. The less radical alternative would already have been unsuccessfully pursued.

We will therefore soon learn how sincere the Act's opponents' commitment is to representation for the District. If they are able to explain how, contrary to appearances, a constitutional amendment, statehood, or retrocession might be politically feasible--and if they then fight their damnedest for one of these options--then their protestations of support will be believable. But if they merely object to the Act while failing to lift a finger on behalf of any of the alternatives, then it will be clear that their actual motivation is raw partisan advantage. With the Senate debating the Act today and the House soon to follow, the moment of truth is nigh for the Act's critics. Here's hoping that democratic principle prevails over party loyalty for a change.