Tuesday, March 3, 2009

D.C. Should Be Given Congressional Representation, But the Constitution Must Be Respected

The American Revolution was sparked by a belief among the colonists that the British had no right to tax them directly, as they themselves were not represented in the Parliament. Strangely, the capital of the republic created by that very Revolution today suffers the very fate that their ancestors fought so long and hard against.

The District of Columbia has a population of nearly 600,000. This is more people than the state of Wyoming. Although the citizens of the District have the right to cast their votes in Presidential elections, thanks to the 23rd Amendment, they are still denied any meaningful representation in Congress. The District has a single non-voting member in the House of Representatives and no representation at all in the Senate. Despite this lack of congressional representation, the citizens of the District of Columbia are subject to the federal income tax and all other federal taxes just as if they were citizens of New York or Texas. This truly is a case of taxation without representation.

This shameful situation must be properly remedied by providing the citizens of the District with full representation in the United States Congress.

Some have called for this situation to be solved through the simple expedient of making the District of Columbia a state in its own right. Another possible solution is to simply give the district back to Maryland and toss the 600,000 D.C. residents into the political mix of that state. However, either of these two proposals face a particular problem: they would give a state control over the territory housing the federal government. James Madison pointed out in Federalist #43 that "a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy." In other words, having the seat of federal government within the confines of a particular state could give that state disproportionate influence over the federal government.

Madison probably wrote this with a particular incident in mind. In late 1783, Congress had been threatened by mutinous soldiers demanding back pay. The Governor of Pennsylvania, in sympathy with the soldiers, had refused to provide adequate protection for Congress, thus forcing them to flee to Annapolis. The lesson had been learned: the seat of the national government had to be under the direct control of the national government, because they could not always depend on the government of a state.

A better option than making D.C. a state or giving it back to Maryland would be to pass legislation that simply states that the District of Columbia should, for the purposes of elections to the House of Representatives, be considered a state. This is the intention behind a bill currently making its way through Congress (giving an extra seat to heavily-Republican Utah to ensure the party balance remains unaffected), but its ultimate fate is uncertain. A report from the Congressional Research Service indicates that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to grant voting power to the District. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution states clearly that only states can send representatives to the House. D.C. is not a state, and therefore the law is unconstitutional.

It seems to me that giving D.C. representation in Congress would require a constitutional amendment. This was done in 1961 to give D.C. the right to vote in presidential election, when the 23rd Amendment was enacted. Congress did, in act, pass an amendment to give D.C. congressional representation in 1978, but it was not passed by enough state legislatures to become law. We need to do it again, and this time do it right.

Whether D.C. representation in the Senate should be included in this proposal is up for debate. However, given the overwhelmingly Democratic voting record of D.C. residents, I think any measure that included D.C. representation in the Senate would have a difficult time becoming law, as the Republican party would block any such proposal with all the means at their disposal. It's better to push for legislation that gives you half of what you want and has a chance of actually passing then going to wall for legislation that gives you everything you want and has no chance of passing.

If enacted, this amendment would remove a small stain on the American governmental system that has been ignored for too long.

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