Washington, D.C., Deserves Vote in Congress Now

If we're voting, mark one down for the 600,000 disenfranchised Americans.

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Remember this number: 600,000.

Imagine if Las Vegas were cut out of the congressional map. Sin City residents would have all the rights and responsibilities of other Americans—pay taxes, serve in the military, etc.—but they just wouldn't have a vote in the U.S. House or Senate.

Suppose Denver was lopped out of Congress. Or Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Albuquerque, N.M., or Portland, Ore. Imagine if we treated Wyoming like that. These locales are not randomly selected, of course. Denver and Las Vegas have roughly the same population as Washington, D.C., at slightly under 600,000. Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, Atlanta, and Portland are all smaller, as is the Equality State (who knew that was Wyoming's nickname?).

What separates these cities from Washington, D.C., is that the others are all represented on Capitol Hill. While Congress is in D.C., D.C. is not in Congress. Too often, discussion of the District's lack of congressional representation treats the situation like some local quirk, esoteric constitutional question, or matter of minor political gamesmanship, eclipsing the central fact: Six hundred thousand Americans have been cut out of our brand of representative government. Six hundred thousand. That's Milwaukee, Seattle, or the city of Boston.

This isn't a regional foible or constitutional quirk. It strikes at the basic premises underlying our democratic republic, notions like participation and consent of the governed. It's an outrage and an offense to our federal system in which the citizens from the whole of the country are supposed to be represented in Washington.

Lurching progress is being made. Last week the Senate passed a bill that would grant the District of Columbia a voting member of the House. (D.C. currently has one nonvoting delegate in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton.) This legislation includes a compromise whereby solidly Republican Utah—which, going by the census population numbers, would have been next in line for another representative—would get a fourth House member at the same time that overwhelmingly Democratic D.C. would finally get its first.

The House passed a version of this plan in 2007, but it fell to a predominantly GOP filibuster in the Senate—57 lawmakers voted to end debate, three short of the magical 60. The current version of the Senate brought a net of four new yes votes, and the bill passed 61 to 37. The House is expected to act on it soon, and President Obama has promised to sign the bill.

Critics focus their opposition to the legislation on a constitutional question. Article I, Section 2, dictates, "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States"; D.C. is not a state, the argument goes, so it cannot choose a member for the House. These critics also point to a constitutional amendment that Congress passed in 1978 that would have granted D.C. a House member and two senators. (Only 16 of the required 38 states ratified the amendment before it expired seven years later.) If an amendment was required then, they say, it's needed now. The counterargument is that under Article I, Section 8, the enumerated powers of Congress include exercising "exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever" over D.C., presumably including awarding congressional representation.

The Constitution, by the way, is an imperfect document, which is why we've amended it 27 times. If the Founders contemplated Washington becoming one of the 30 biggest cities in the country but its citizens not having full rights, then they were wrong. But they probably did not. James Madison, writing in the 43rd Federalist Paper, specifically said that when D.C. was established, an arrangement would presumably be made that would "no doubt provide ... for the rights and the consent of the citizens inhabiting it." Not so much.

The constitutional argument against the current bill is not unreasonable. It may well be correct. The courts will presumably decide. But remember the 600,000 disenfranchised Americans. "No" is not a sufficient answer to the current proposal. Neither is "No, but why don't you try a constitutional amendment again?" When 600,000 Americans are cut out of the political process, you're either actively working for a solution or you're part of the problem. If you think the plan on the table is unconstitutional, then you need to come up with a better solution—and push it. Inaction and apathy in the face of a glaring hole in the American political system are as good as active opposition to fixing it.