Improve the D.C. FAIR Act, Then Pass It

Posted May 18, 2005 at 3:20pm

Residents of Washington, D.C., may be on track to getting voting representation in Congress.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) recently re-introduced the D.C. Fairness in Representation Act (D.C. FAIR Act, H.R. 2043) with Republican and Democratic co-sponsors and the support of the D.C. City Council and mayor.

Together with the No Taxation Without Representation Act (S.195, H.R. 398), sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), there is growing bipartisan interest in addressing the lack of voting representation in Congress for District residents.

Davis, Lieberman, Norton and others are tapping into a strong sentiment throughout the country. A poll conducted in January by KRS research showed that 82 percent of Americans believe that D.C. residents deserve full voting representation. Support in the poll cuts across party lines, with 87 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans in favor of D.C. voting rights. Additionally, support for D.C. voting rights in Congress is strong throughout the country, with 84 percent approval in both the South and the Northeast, and 80 percent in both the West and the Midwest.

Congress does not have to pass a constitutional amendment or grant statehood to D.C. to give Washingtonians voting representation. Conservative legal experts Kenneth Starr and Viet Dinh believe that Congress has the authority under the Constitution to provide such representation through simple legislation.

They conclude that the Framers gave Congress sweeping authority under Article I to make all rules necessary to provide for the welfare and well-being of the capital and its citizens. In 2004, before the House Government Reform Committee, Starr described this power as “majestic in its scope” and added: “The use of the word ‘state’ [in the Constitution] cannot bar Congress from exercising its plenary authority [under the District Clause] to extend the franchise to District residents.”

The D.C. FAIR Act represents renewed momentum and a creative approach to addressing this issue. Democratic-leaning Washington, D.C., would be given one voting representative in the U.S. House. In exchange, a House member would also be added to historically Republican Utah, a state that narrowly failed to secure a fourth Congressional seat after the 2000 Census.

The D.C. FAIR Act by no means provides all of what D.C. residents deserve. But, we understand that success on D.C. voting rights will continue to be achieved in stages.

We agree with Davis that if a D.C. voting rights bill is to pass in this Congress, it needs to be politically neutral — a prerequisite met by the D.C. FAIR Act. But to be truly fair to Washingtonians, we believe the bill should address the single-most important need at this time: representation in the Senate.

Congress is a bi-cameral legislature, and both the House and the Senate have authority over D.C.’s budget and its laws. It therefore makes sense that Washingtonians should have representation in both chambers. D.C.’s biggest disadvantage now is that it has absolutely no representation, whether voting or otherwise, in the Senate.

DC Vote proposes a solution that combines elements of the D.C. FAIR Act and the No Taxation Without Representation Act. Congress should provide Washingtonians with a nonvoting delegate in the Senate. The delegate should have a six-year term, with a vote in committees and speaking privileges on the Senate floor.

This approach does not upset the current status quo in the Senate and is nearly identical to the D.C. Delegate position in the House. The idea for a D.C. Delegate to the Senate originated in the 1920s and has been discussed routinely since then. By adding a Senate delegate position to the D.C. FAIR Act, Congress could meld the two leading D.C. voting rights bills, and, most importantly, provide D.C. residents with a much-needed voice in the Senate.

Some in Congress, however, are decidedly lukewarm to the D.C. FAIR Act approach, due to concerns about redistricting in Utah. We believe there is a solution to that problem as well: make the temporary, fourth Congressional seat an at-large position until the next Census in 2010.

Utah would, in other words, not need to redistrict the other seats. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) mentioned this option in January as a possible way to deal with the problem of redistricting. While current law wouldn’t allow the state of Utah to create such a seat, Congress has the authority to do just that.

People around the country believe that democracy is a birthright for all Americans, including those living in D.C. Now that there is growing bipartisan support for providing D.C. residents with voting representation, the House Judiciary Committee should take the next step this summer by passing a bill that provides Washingtonians with a vote in the House and a Delegate to the Senate. It’s time to bring American democracy to America’s capital.

Ilir Zherka is the executive director of DC Vote.