Monday, March 19, 2007

When I moved to Washington 21 years ago and decided to live in the District rather than Maryland or Virginia, I knew I was voluntarily choosing to forgo something most Americans take entirely for granted, namely, their say in choosing a representative in the House and two members of the Senate. In truth, I was not especially bothered by this lost opportunity for political participation then, nor am I now.

You could say, moreover, that no one lives in the District involuntarily. If voting for a member of Congress and senators is a sufficiently high priority for you, you can probably find your way to a location that allows you to do so. And you could remark, as well, the special constitutional status of the District as precisely not a state, equal among other states, but rather a place where the representatives of all the states, that is, Congress as a whole, has jurisdiction. One might even deem this constitutional provision to have been an innovative and admirable solution to the late 18th-century problem of the undue influence a state might have were it home to the nation’s capital.

Nor is the District some sort of island of authoritarianism in a sea of democracies. D.C. residents have for more than a generation enjoyed substantial home-rule powers, including the ability to elect a legislative body, the D.C. Council, and a mayor who has genuine and not merely symbolic power. It is undeniable that Congress second-guesses these locally elected officials from time to time, and indeed reserves the right to intervene on a massive scale in case of local mismanagement, a judgment Congress alone will make, not subject to appeal by local residents. We saw this in the days of the Control Board. But in the ordinary course of events, substantial political decisions are the province of locally elected officials. And even at the national level, the District is not entirely cut out, since it has three votes in the electoral college that decides the presidency, the same number as the least populous states.

Nevertheless, how exactly is it a good thing that residents of the District, uniquely among American taxpayers, have no representation in Congress? I think critics of the proposal now emerging to replace the District’s participation-limited delegate with a full-fledged voting member of Congress owe us an explanation of why it’s better for the country for residents of the District not to be able to have a share in selecting a member of the national legislature. That includes the White House, which has expressed opposition to the legislation on constitutional grounds.

If the provision of the Constitution holding that members of Congress shall come from the states (by implication, not from anywhere that isn’t a state) is dispositive, then why not let the Supreme Court be the body that says so? Since at least some legal scholars believe that the provision cited is not the last and dispositive word on the subject, why pre-empt the question? Or rather, please, let us hear the reason from the executive branch why the president would choose to pre-empt by asserting his view of the Constitution in his veto message when the legislation gets to his desk.

No, presidents and lawmakers shouldn’t be casual about the responsibility they accept in their oaths of office to protect and defend the Constitution. But in this instance, we have a true anomaly, hundreds of thousands of people who lack what every other American taxpayer has, an equal say in the selection of a lawmaker.

It’s not obvious that taking action to address this anomaly would harm any other interest the Constitution protects. Oh, one can spin out elaborate and paranoid scenarios, according to which the representative from the District of Columbia becomes the chairperson of a powerful committee and then, uh, well, what exactly? Earmarks federal dollars to construct bike paths in D.C.? Federally funded bike paths may be stupid, but they are no more stupid in the District than in any congressional district.

In fact, addressing this anomaly of disenfranchisement would fit into a centuries-long tradition of expanding the franchise to those whom contemporaneous reasoning now concludes are unreasonably excluded. If taking such action requires a constitutional amendment, let the Supreme Court say so.

It seems to me that the only other possible objection, besides the constitutional one, is politics. And it’s a pretty serious one, in that the representative from the District would be a Democrat for the foreseeable future. Why would Republicans be willing to go along with an extra Democrat? But that’s the beauty of the proposed legislation: In adding a seat to Republican-friendly Utah, thereby increasing the size of the House from 435 to 437, lawmakers came up with a reasonable way to address a longstanding injustice without harming anyone unduly. They devised a fair political solution to a fair political objection.

They don’t do this so often, in the scheme of things, that we should neglect supporting them when they do.

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