The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform recently approved legislation introduced by Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R.-Va.) that would grant the District of Columbia a voting member in the House of Representatives. So that the bill would appeal across party lines, it would expand the number of congressmen to 437, giving one new (presumably Democratic) seat to D.C. and the other new (presumably Republican) seat to Utah, which claims to have been short-changed by post-1990 census reapportionment. Twenty-nine committee members voted in favor of this measure. Only four, including myself, opposed it.
My opposition to this measure is not founded on any belief that residents of the District of Columbia do not deserve congressional representation. As former secretary of State of Michigan, I was chief elections officer for eight years, and ensuring that every citizen had the opportunity to have his voice heard at the ballot box was one my most important responsibilities. The right to vote and the ability of American citizens to influence our government are the most important fundamental rights of our democracy. So while I take voting rights very seriously, I am concerned that this proposed legislation seeking to give the District of Columbia the same congressional representation that states have is not the way to address this problem.
Congress’ Exclusive Jurisdiction
Though well-intentioned, this legislation is, above all, unconstitutional. The Constitution explicitly declares that representation in Congress can be granted only to states. Article 1, Section 2 states that "Representatives … shall be apportioned among the several states…" Accordingly, the District of Columbia is currently represented in the House of Representatives not by a member of Congress, but instead by an elected delegate who can participate in debate and vote in committee but cannot vote on the House floor. The same goes for other American non-state territories that are comprised of American citizens, including Puerto Rico and Guam.
Becoming a state is the only means by which the District of Columbia could gain a seat in the House of Representatives, and in order to pursue statehood, D.C. would first need the Constitution to be amended. The District of Columbia is unique among all other non-state territories, because Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress exclusive jurisdiction "in all cases whatsoever" over the District of Columbia. Congress would need to be relieved of all responsibility for the district in order for the district to pursue statehood, and until such an amendment to the Constitution is passed, there will always be a question as to the constitutionality of a potential D.C. representative.
Proposals to give the district a vote in Congress have abounded for years, yet they have continually failed to pass. A proposal to grant D.C. statehood was voted on in Congress as recently as 1993, and it was defeated by a vote of 277-153. The issue of granting representation for the District of Columbia is not one that can be taken lightly. Consider a scenario in which this proposal to add a representative from D.C. to the House were to pass and that respective representative cast the decisive vote on a piece of legislation. If the legality of their vote were litigated up to the highest level, it is highly likely that the Supreme Court would rule their vote unconstitutional because the District of Columbia is not a state. What would then become of these laws passed with an unconstitutional vote?
Despite the good intentions of supporters of this legislation, the constitutionality of the proposal must take precedent over any other political motives. Our Founding Fathers gave Congress jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, the seat of the federal government, and only a constitutional amendment can change this. I feel it is my duty as a member of Congress to protect the sanctity of the Constitution, and see to it that no action other than that which is laid out in our Constitution is considered on this issue.
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