- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Legal analysts yesterday debated before a House committee the constitutionality of a bill that would give the District congressional voting rights, wrangling over the right of Congress to enact the change and sparking concern among lawmakers that the measure might violate the Constitution.

“Is it possible … that we are about to step into a huge constitutional problem?” Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked the panel. “Can we all have good will and not be able to do anything on this [because] the Constitution has us tied in knots?”

Proponents of the voting rights bill ar preparing for the measure to be moved by the end of the month to the House floor for a vote, where it likely will pass under a Democratic majority. Dozens of D.C. voting rights supporters, including D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, attended the hearing.

The bill would grant the District, which leans heavily Democratic, a full vote in the House and create an additional seat for Utah, a state that leans Republican.

The bill faces a final hurdle in a markup session today before the Judiciary Committee, although the witnesses at the hearing yesterday — who included law professors from local universities — stood 3-to-1 in favor of the bill’s constitutionality, much to the chagrin of some Republican members.

“Since D.C. is not a state, it cannot have a voting member in the House,” said Rep. Lamar S. Smith, Texas Republican and ranking minority member of the committee. “That’s not even a tough law school question.”

The emotional and practical arguments for giving the District a vote were repeated by witnesses and lawmakers: D.C. residents pay federal taxes, and fight and die in the country’s wars.

At issue are the semantics of certain clauses in the U.S. Constitution. One clause asserts congressional authority over the District, and another states that the House will be composed of members chosen by the people of the states.

Viet D. Dinh, a law professor and co-director of Asian Law and Policy Studies at Georgetown University Law Center, said the Constitution does grant Congress the authority to provide the District with House representation.

He said lawmakers allowed D.C. residents to vote in Maryland and Virginia elections before the District was formally designated the nation’s capital in 1800.

“It showed that Congress had the power to provide District residents with the right to vote, even if such a right could be seen as transitional or residual,” he said.

Mr. Dinh also argued that case law and Supreme Court precedent show that Congress has the authority to treat the District as a state, and the Constitution does not prohibit lawmakers from doing so.

However, opponents of the bill argued that it would contradict the Constitution precisely because the District is not a state.

Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, argued that the Founding Fathers created the District specifically to be without direct representation.

Opponents also said giving the city voting rights should be attempted through other avenues, such as a constitutional amendment or ceding part of the District to Maryland and creating a House seat for that state.

“We are left with a question not of ends but of means,” Mr. Turley said. This bill “is the wrong means. I consider this [act] to be the most premeditated, unconstitutional act by Congress in decades.”

The committee markup is scheduled for 10 a.m. today in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

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