The House of Representatives takes up legislation this week to grant voting rights to the residents of the District of Columbia, and among all the contentious voices there’s none to speak up for the Constitution.
That’s because the contending parties have devised a squalid little game of “you scratch my itch and I’ll scratch where you itch.” But granting the right to congressional representation for the District is a granting authority the Congress does not have, if words have meanings. The Constitution was deliberately written so that the common man could understand it without the mumbo-jumbo that lawyers invented to manipulate the law.
Article 1, Section 2: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.” Congress, this makes plain and clear, is a legislative body made up of representatives of States, not of States and Districts (or townships and precincts). The capitalization of certain words, which seems so quaint to students of our present day, was hardly coincidental.
The 23d Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1961, grants the vote to qualified District residents in presidential elections, but there’s nothing in XXIII about congressional elections. The right to representation in Congress is reserved for “States,” and the District of Columbia is not a “State.” What could be plainer than that?
But if you can’t argue the facts, as every lawyer knows, you try tap-dancing. Advocates for tap-dancing around the Constitution have their arguments, some more artistic than others, composed mostly of feelings and sentiments. One overwrought Washington pastor, writing in The Washington Post, complains that the city was “months ahead of much of the nation in granting freedom to slaves” but “remains centuries behind in securing voting rights for our nearly 600,000 residents.” For the sake of her parishioners we must pray the lady knows more about theology than she knows about history and how the world works. The city of Washington had no power to free the slaves; that was the work of President Lincoln and the federal government. But the emotion is pretty in certain ears, and for certain ears that’s enough.
Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, argues that District residents have no representation in Congress “even though we pay federal taxes, fight in wars and fulfill all other obligations of citizenship.” This is of a piece with the slogan “Taxation Without Representation” written on license tags, a lie that motorists must display on their cars and trucks, like it or not. It’s a lie because District residents actually have 535 representatives in the House and Senate, duty bound to look after the District of Columbia. Whether these representatives always do their duty is certainly arguable.
The most cynical of the cynical advocates is Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which passes on the qualifications of federal judges, and who might be chairman of the committee once more if the Republicans become a majority in the Senate again. Mr. Hatch wants to take home a little pork sausage to Utah, and he conspired in a deal to trade another House seat for Utah for his support in the scheme to treat the District “as if it were a state” and grant it a House seat. Mr. Hatch knows better. The Congress knows better. But greed and avarice trump all on the Hill (as in a lot of other places).
The best hope for preventing this abuse of the Constitution lies in an amendment to the voting-rights legislation to preserve congressional oversight of the city council’s gun laws. The gun-control nuts are so determined to disarm the law-abiding citizens of the District of Columbia that they are willing — eager, even — to give up the voting-rights legislation if it means the law-abiding citizens can’t keep their guns. The gun nuts, first among them the editorialists at The Washington Post, argue that getting to vote for president is not nearly as important as depriving good citizens of their right to own guns, and so kill the bill.
In a logical world, the benders and twisters of the Constitution would propose amending the Constitution to make of the District the 51st state and set out on the hard work of persuading 38 states to ratify it. Once they succeed, the new state could write its own laws and try to slip them past the Supreme Court. The Constitution would be preserved and Orrin Hatch could find another pig for Utah.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.