Politics & Policy

Defining Statehood Down

The words of the Constitution are plain enough: Members of the House of Representatives shall come from “the several states.” That’s why the Senate and, if necessary, the president must now resist the Pelosi majority’s decision to create a special seat in the House for a non-state — the District of Columbia.

Last week, by a vote of 241–177, the House approved the “District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007.” It would expand the size of the House by two seats, from 435 to 437. One of these new seats would be reserved for D.C. and the other would go to the state that is next due to receive a seat through the normal process of apportionment, which in this case is Utah. The bill’s authors believe that this is a fair compromise because it presumably would preserve the chamber’s political equilibrium: D.C. voters are overwhelming Democratic and Utah voters are strongly Republican.

The Washington Post described the bill’s passage as D.C.’s “biggest legislative victory in its quest for voting rights in nearly three decades.” Yet it is a hollow triumph, for it is so obviously unconstitutional. The Congressional Research Service said as much in a January report. The fig leaf of an argument made by supporters of the bill is that the Constitution gives Congress exclusive jurisdiction over D.C., and thus gives Congress the power to give it voting representation in Congress. This argument is a classic case of proving too much: May the Congress therefore create a monarchy for D.C.? Obviously not: The grant of exclusive jurisdiction does not permit Congress to do anything that the rest of the Constitution forbids — and the rest of the Constitution clearly forbids it to treat D.C. as a state.

When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, they were concerned about the possibility of a single state’s holding too much influence over the seat of national government. So they created a special federal district, outside the jurisdiction of the states and under the exclusive authority of Congress. Today, the balance of power between the states and the federal government has reversed, with the states more worried about federal encroachments than vice versa. But the words of the Founders remain, and they cannot be disregarded.

The problems with the current legislation are manifold. If D.C. is not a state but is nevertheless entitled to a seat in the House of Representatives, then what about other federal commonwealths and territories? Are the good people of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also worthy of full congressional representation? If a non-state such as D.C. deserves a seat in the House, then by what principle will it be denied a pair of senators, another privilege reserved by the Constitution for “each state”? Moreover, congressional representation should be rooted in the text of the Constitution, not the whims of a majority. What Congress may give, Congress also may take away: If D.C. truly deserves voting rights, then these rights should be placed beyond the ordinary reach of the party in power.

Serious advocates of congressional voting rights for D.C. understand that they have three options: constitutional amendment, statehood, and retrocession. Each is difficult but not impossible. The 23rd Amendment, granting D.C. electoral votes, was ratified in 1961. (If the folks behind the current bill are right, the amenders were chumps to go to the trouble.) Yet an effort to amend the Constitution to treat D.C. “as if it were a state” fizzled in the 1970s. Formal statehood, achieved through the rules of admission established by the Constitution, is possible but politically unlikely. Finally, there is retrocession — i.e., ceding the bulk of the district to Maryland, much as a portion of D.C. was ceded to Virginia in 1846. A federal district would survive, but as a much-reduced core that contains the Capitol, the White House, and the National Mall. In some ways, this is the most attractive option. Maryland, of course, would have to agree to the transfer.

The House of Representatives has chosen to ignore all of this. The Senate, however, should refuse to define statehood down.


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