The District of Columbia can’t seem to get its constitutional priorities straight. Two weeks ago, it asked the U.S. Supreme Court to deny its citizens their Second Amendment rights by overturning an appellate decision that lifted the city’s handgun ban in March. Now it’s trying to invent a brand-new constitutional right: a vote for itself in the House of Representatives.
Tuesday, the Senate will consider legislation that would expand the House of Representatives by two seats, including one that would be permanently reserved for the District. This is an obvious violation of the Constitution, which says that members of the House of Representatives shall come from “the several states.”
The House passed the bill in April, and now it appears to command a majority in the Senate as well. The immediate question is whether it can secure 60 votes for cloture. It probably will, if a handful of fence-sitting Republicans fail to stand up for the plain meaning of the Constitution. Over the weekend, uncommitted GOP senators included Sam Brownback, Arlen Specter, and Richard Lugar, according to the Washington Post.
We made a fuller case against the bill on another occasion. The short version is that District residents have exactly three ways to pursue a House seat constitutionally: a revision to the Constitution modeled on the 23rd Amendment, which granted three electoral voters to D.C.; statehood, acquired through the standard rules of admission; or the retrocession of much of the city into Maryland.
Supporters of the bill have tried to mollify the partisan concerns of Republicans. Under the legislation, not only would D.C. win representation — creating one of the nation’s safest seats for a Democrat — but an additional congressman would be elected from the state that stands next in line to receive a seat through the normal process of apportionment. At the moment, that state is Utah. Republicans currently occupy two of its three House seats. The presumption is that voters in a new congressional district would elect a third Republican. This political calculation seems to have persuaded Utah’s two senators, Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett, to back the bill.
The arrangement may deliver a short-term payoff to Utah, but there’s no guarantee it will deliver lasting benefit to the GOP. Congressional reapportionment will occur following the 2010 census, and Utah is likely to win a new seat even in a House with 435 members. The extra seat created by the D.C. bill would then go somewhere else, such as California — where the Democrats who dominate Sacramento would be more than happy to gerrymander it to their party’s advantage.
Several Republican senators bear watching, but perhaps none more than Brownback, the presidential contender. A vote in favor of the bill would suggest his unfitness for the White House. And if he tries to dodge the issue by missing the vote — when he might have the potential to stop this bill — then will be strong evidence that his candidacy does not advance the interests of conservatism.
Of course, this is not simply a question of conservatism. It is in the interests of the Constitution that the bill fail. If the Senate refuses to do its duty, then President Bush should do his — with a veto.