Judiciary Poised to OK D.C. Voting Rights Bill

Posted March 14, 2007 at 5:14pm

Residents of Washington, D.C., could take a big step forward today in their quest for a full House vote.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a markup on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, a compromise measure that would grant Democratic-leaning D.C. a full-voting Representative. Utah, which just missed getting a fourth House Member after the 2000 Census, also would be given an at-large seat that is expected to be won by a Republican.

If the bill passes Judiciary today (it overwhelmingly passed the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday), it will be the closest D.C. has come to getting a House vote in decades. A similar measure was approved by Government Reform last year but never made it out of Judiciary.

This time might be different. Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) is a co-sponsor of the legislation, originally introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). And at a Judiciary hearing Wednesday, Conyers voiced his support for the measure, calling it “historic and in many respects long overdue.”

“District residents pay billions of dollars in federal taxes each year,” Conyers said. “They serve honorably in this nation’s military. So the question before us today is how we can justify denying them the same voting rights other American citizens enjoy.”

With Norton and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) in attendance, dozens of District residents packed the room Wednesday. Many residents stood when witness Bruce Spiva, chairman of the advocacy group DC Vote, said in his opening remarks that Washingtonians have been “reduced to political bystanders in our own country.”

And while most committee members agreed D.C. residents deserve representation, the question remained whether the bill passes constitutional muster.

Spiva, Georgetown University Law Center professor Viet Dinh and attorney Richard Bress all told the panel the bill is constitutional; opposition came from George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, who testified that Congress simply does not have the authority under the Constitution to grant the District a House vote.

Not only does the Constitution prohibit the bill, Turley said, but so does history. When the nation’s founders established a federal enclave in 1787, they decided it should be independent of any state, protected by federal authority and politically neutral.

“This very issue was debated, and people like Alexander Hamilton lost that debate,” Turley said.

Several members of the committee also voiced opposition to the bill, including ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

The bill exceeds constitutional bounds by granting Congressional representation to a non-state, going directly against Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says the House should be chosen by the citizens of “several states,” he argued.

“Since D.C. is not a state, it cannot have a Representative,” Smith said. “That’s not even a tough law school exam question.”

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who served as chairman of the committee in the 109th Congress, said that while he is troubled about the overall constitutionality of the bill, much of his concern is on giving Utah an at-large seat, which he argued would go against the premise of “one man, one vote” that has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

In the previous Congress, the bill’s language was changed to give Utah a fourth district to address Sensenbrenner’s concern, and the Utah Legislature even held a special session to design a new Congressional map.

But when the bill was reintroduced this year, the at-large seat was brought back, in part so current Utah Reps. Rob Bishop (R), Jim Matheson (D) and Chris Cannon (R) wouldn’t have to campaign in a special election so soon after being re-elected.

“If there is this mixed representation for Utah, you have lost my support,” Sensenbrenner said.

But the three other witnesses and a number of committee members stood up in support for the bill.

Dinh, who helped the Bush administration craft the USA PATRIOT Act, testified that Congress maintains control over D.C. under the Constitution’s District Clause and thus has the power to grant a Representative.

Similar steps have been taken before, including granting D.C. the rights of a state for purposes of diversity jurisdiction.

“The legislation doesn’t seek to change the meaning of a state, just give the District some state-like rights,” Dinh said.

Bress stood up for the Utah at-large seat, testifying that the Supreme Court has upheld at-large representation so long as voting is proportionate.

“What matters for purposes of proportionate representation is the weight of each person’s vote, not the number of times they pull the lever in the voting booth,” he said. “The proposed at-large election would not give residents of Utah more or less voting power than the residents of other states with single-member districts.”

Additional support for the bill came from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who grew up in the District.

Johnson recalled how his parents would wait until the last minute to file their taxes and said he never understood why they waited so long.

“I didn’t realize they were second-class citizens until much later,” Johnson said.

Had he remained in D.C., Johnson also wouldn’t have made it to Congress, he said.

“I would not have had the opportunity to do so, because of where I was born and the state of the law,” Johnson said.