A bill to give D.C. a voting representative in Congress has stalled for a second time in six months amid debate over its constitutionality.
The District has one non-voting representative in the House of Representatives, a position Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) holds. The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007 – sponsored by Norton and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) – would add two new seats to the House. The bill allots one of the new seats to the predominantly Democratic nation’s capital and the other to a Republican region in Utah.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor who testified at two House Judiciary Committee hearings on the Voting Rights bill, said the law is unconstitutional. Turley said the bill violates Article I, Section II of the Constitution, which states “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen … by the People of the several States.” Because D.C. is designated a special district in the Constitution, it isn’t a state.
Turley, who said he supports a voting representative in Congress for D.C., said lawmakers should focus on refashioning the legislation, given its unlikely chances of becoming a law.
“It is a shame that we have spent years debating this flagrantly unconstitutional measure rather than dealing with legitimate ways to get full representation for the District,” Turley said.
Congress should look into making D.C. part of Maryland to solve the problem, Turley said. This strategy, called retrocession, would make D.C. a normal state-supervised city.
This is the first time similar legislation has reached the House floor since 1978. An identical bill was proposed in December, but Republican leadership wouldn’t allow it onto the agenda.
After reaching the House floor March 23, an unexpected Republican amendment to ease District gun laws caused Majority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to delay the vote for a later date. The White House also announced last week that President George W. Bush would likely veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.
About 30 students and professors from the D.C. area gathered at Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant on U Street Monday night to discuss voting rights. D.C. Vote, a volunteer-based organization working to gain support for District voting rights, organized the event.
“It’s terrible that the nation’s capital is not being represented,” sophomore Andrea Katz said at the event. “And while (some representatives claim) that Congress represents D.C. as a whole, no one person has D.C. as a first priority.”
Political science professor Mark Croatti said although the bill does not grant D.C. representation in both the House and the Senate, it is a step in the right direction.
“Anything that gives the District some voting rights is worthwhile,” Croatti said, adding that very few students he encounters are aware of the issue.
In December, he brought about 60 of his students to a D.C. Vote lobbying day at Capitol Hill. He said he also plans to bring students to the march for D.C. voting rights in April.
Organizers at Ben’s Chili Bowl stressed to participants that the April 16 march is essential to gaining recognition for the group’s cause.
Senior L. Asher Corson, who is an elected member of the Foggy Bottom/West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said he supports the bill. The ANC advises D.C. government officials and agencies on community concerns.
“The real reason the issue never gets handled is because the powerful, wealthy people that live in this city do not live here permanently,” Corson said, referring to both politicians and college students. “People that live here permanently tend to be a fairly disadvantaged demographic.”
Other D.C. residents have trouble supporting the bill, though they adamantly support voting rights for the District.
Dwight Cropp, a public policy professor who formerly worked in D.C. government, said that although he wants full voting rights, he agrees that the bill needs to be reworked.
“As a lifetime resident of the District, of course emotionally I want a voting representative in the Congress. I think I deserve (it) as a citizen,” said Cropp, who is the husband to former D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp. “But from a purely academic and legal perspective it will be difficult to do that within existing law.”
Cropp suggested that the most lawful approach would be to amend the Constitution to allow D.C. to be represented in the House.
Education on the issue, he added, is important. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to educate people and get the word across the country that there is more to the District of Columbia than the White House, the Capitol and Marion Barry.”