Hoyer Wants Fast Action on D.C. Bill

Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:29pm

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) pledged Tuesday to quickly bring the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act to the floor, while Members reignited a debate over the constitutionality of giving the city a Congressional vote via statute.

A nearly identical bill passed the House in 2007, only to fall three votes short of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate. Voting rights advocates hope the 2009 bill will reach the floor in a few weeks — and Hoyer appears dedicated to that cause.

“As our nation’s story tells us again and again, a vote means dignity, respect, individual personhood and identity,” Hoyer said in his impassioned remarks at a Judiciary subcommittee hearing. “As Majority Leader, I tell you I intend to bring that bill to the floor very early.”

The bill appears likely to make it out of the Judiciary Committee in the next few weeks, considering it has the support of Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and the House Democratic leadership.

But it’s still controversial among Members and constitutional scholars alike, and Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing added at least one new element to the debate: the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in the District of Columbia v. Heller.

In its decision, which directed the District to retool its stringent gun laws, the court referred to the Composition Clause — the same clause that opponents of the D.C. Voting Rights Act point to when arguing that the bill is unconstitutional. It states that the House “shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.”

And so, the debate rests on whether “states” could include D.C.

At Tuesday’s hearing, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley argued that in Heller, the Supreme Court specified that “states” means actual states.

By giving a voting Representative to the city, he said, Congress would change the definition of a Member of the House. The bill, he said, is akin to “allowing Rosa Parks to move halfway to the front of the bus” and a “flagrant violation of the Constitution.”

“I don’t know how you can get around that without changing Heller,” Turley said.

The only options, opponents argue, are a constitutional amendment or retroceding D.C. back into Maryland.

But D.C. voting rights advocates argue that “states” is a vague term and holds different meanings throughout the Constitution. And some constitutional scholars argue that the District Clause, which authorizes Congress to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the District, trumps the Composition Clause.

“Yes, the District is not a state. Yes, state means state,” Georgetown University law professor Viet Dinh said. But, he added, the District Clause gives Congress sweeping power to make exceptions for the city.

The disagreement among scholars almost guarantees the legislation will be challenged in court, if and when it is signed into law.

Several Republicans have highlighted that possibility and attempted to convince colleagues to thus support other possibilities. At least two bills on the horizon would have D.C. residents vote through Maryland.

And Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a Judiciary Committee member and outspoken opponent of the bill, announced at Tuesday’s hearing that he would introduce a measure to pardon all D.C. residents from paying federal income taxes.

“Taxation without representation,” said Gohmert, who support retrocession. “That slogan has made an impact on me.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) seemed skeptical of such efforts after the hearings, pointing out that the sponsors of the bills hadn’t even asked for the input of D.C. or Maryland residents. And Gohmert’s plan, she said, was identical to a bill she has introduced in the past to no avail.

“There’s kind of a frying pan into the fire notion to these suggestions,” she said.