Last week, the U.S. Senate made a promising step toward correcting a wrong that even our founding fathers fought against. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs passed the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009. The nearly 592,000 District of Columbia residents now have their best shot yet at gaining true representation in the House of Representatives. But this still falls short of America’s responsibility to the people of its capital.
The full Senate is poised to make a preliminary vote on the bill on Tuesday. A similar bill in 2007 passed in the House but failed in the Senate. At the time, Democrats failed to overcome a Republican filibuster by just three votes. This time the Democrats now have a 58-41 majority in the Senate. This means they need just two Republicans to join them in order to overcome any filibuster attempt.
Passing this bill will begin to right a wrong that the residents of D.C. have had to endure for far too long. It is only natural for GW students to support this measure since many GW faculty, employees and even some students are registered in the District. Hopefully, they spend a few minutes next fall voting for the first representative from the District of Columbia.
But is this enough? According to the 2008 U.S. Census, D.C. has an estimated population of 591,833. This makes the District more populous than the state of Wyoming and only slightly smaller than Vermont and North Dakota. These three states all have two senators. In order to be fully represented in the government that collects income taxes from its residents, D.C. must also have two senators of its own.
This is a more ambitious task than gaining a single representative. Based on the District’s past voting record, this would likely result in two solidly Democratic senators. Such a change would be strongly opposed by Republicans. And, as with representation in the House, there are constitutional concerns. D.C. is not a state, yet it is treated as a state for issues ranging from interstate commerce to Supreme Court cases. It would probably take a constitutional amendment to get D.C. its senators.
Passing an amendment is a long and difficult process, and one that would have given D.C. full rights failed in the 1970s. Many constitutional scholars believe that giving D.C. a representative is within Congress’s rights as stated in the Constitution, thus an amendment is not needed for this first step. Nonetheless, if it is the only way to fully enfranchise District residents it should not be completely forgotten if this bill is passed.
Of course everything in D.C. is political, and a compromise for this bill will also add a seat to Republican leaning state of Utah, ultimately making 437 the total number of seats in the House. This could change after 2012 when the census data from 2010 is used to recalculate the distribution of House seats between the states, but D.C. will still retain its representative.
Giving Utah an extra seat is a small concession in order to give D.C. residents a right they have been denied. This is a big step, but it is still just a first step. There is a lot of work to be done to fully enfranchise the D.C. community.
The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.
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