Plan would give D.C. a House vote
Reliably Republican Utah would gain a seat under a
proposal to let the solidly Democratic district in the
By Johanna Neuman, Times Staff Writer
November 22, 2006
WASHINGTON For decades, efforts to give the District
of Columbia a voting representative in Congress have
run into a brick wall. Constitutional amendments
failed to win the states' support. Ad campaigns about
"taxation without representation" did not help the
Now, unexpected political forces are aligning behind a
plan to give the district a House vote along with a
new seat in Congress for Utah when lawmakers return
for their lame-duck session in early December.
"This is closest we've come in at least 30 years,"
said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an
umbrella lobbying group. "The stars are aligned on
The unlikely union of the District of Columbia and
Utah is the brainchild of Rep. Thomas M. Davis III
(R-Va.). Davis, who represents the district's Virginia
suburbs, said he offered his proposal to "take the
partisanship out of this."
Efforts to empower D.C. residents in the past always
came up against the partisan reality that Republicans
were unlikely to vote for a safe Democratic seat for
the district, a Democratic stronghold with a 57%
African American population.
The problem for Utah is that the 2000 census left it
857 residents short of getting a fourth member of
Congress a decision the state protested to the U.S.
Supreme Court, saying the census failed to count the
thousands of Mormons serving abroad as missionaries.
Utah lost the case.
For the district, not being declared a state by the
founding fathers means the city's 515,000 residents
pay federal taxes, cast votes in presidential
elections and serve in the military without having a
voting member in either the House or the Senate. The
district does have a nonvoting at-large
representative, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton.
By balancing the district with reliably Republican
Utah, Davis won bipartisan approval in May by the
Government Reform Committee for his bill, which would
raise the total number of House members to 437.
In the House Judiciary Committee, legal experts
questioned the legitimacy of giving Utah an at-large
seat, which was the plan at the time because Utah Gov.
Jon Huntsman Jr. balked at enacting a redistricting
plan to carve out a fourth district.
But after Democrats swept to power in the midterm
election, some officials in Utah worried about their
cause in the new Congress. So the governor called the
Legislature into special session, beginning next week,
to approve a four-district map.
"I'm confident we can do that," said state Sen. Curt
Bramble (R-Provo), incoming majority leader in the
Utah State Senate. "Whether or not Congress will act,
that's out of our control."
The folks at DC Vote are banking on it. They have an
ad campaign to move public opinion after their polls
found that 78% of Americans thought D.C. residents
already had congressmen and senators. And they are
lobbying the Senate, where they say their best weapon
is Jack Kemp, the former congressman and vice
presidential candidate who has been privately
buttonholing his former colleagues.
"My argument to them is that you can't send residents
of the city of D.C. to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight
for the right to vote of people there without allowing
the residents of D.C. to elect a member of Congress,"
said Kemp, a Republican who said he was trying to get
the GOP "back to the Abraham Lincoln wing."
Another potent weapon in DC Vote's arsenal is Kenneth
W. Starr, the former special prosecutor who
investigated President Clinton. Starr, now dean of
Pepperdine University's School of Law, wrote in a
widely quoted article with former D.C. Court of
Appeals Chief Judge Patricia Wald that Congress had
the constitutional right to give D.C. residents a
Davis agrees, noting that the courts have "never, ever
overruled Congress" in its legislation affecting the
But Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law
professor, believes the D.C. portion of the bill is
"flagrantly unconstitutional" because the Constitution
gives representation to "the people of the several
It would take a constitutional amendment to give the
district unquestioned congressional and Senate
representation, he said. Addressing it legislatively
means another Congress could always revoke the voting
"This is the equivalent of having Rosa Parks go to the
middle of the bus, the ultimate compromise of
principle," he said, referring to the civil rights
protest Parks launched when she refused to move to the
back of a bus, as required by Jim Crow laws. "Either
D.C. residents are entitled to be full citizens or
If Congress passes the bill giving the district a
voting seat and Utah an additional seat, most
observers believe President Bush would sign it, even
though he said earlier this month, "It's the first
I've heard of it."
The larger issue for Democrats in Congress is whether
they want to risk a constitutional challenge to the
D.C. representative while Utah's new representative
keeps voting. "The irony here," said Turley, "is that
Utah could get an extra seat in Congress only to have
the district seat struck down as unconstitutional."
But Davis thinks Congress is eager to pass the bill.
"We're going to make a run for it in the lame duck,"
he said, predicting the bill would become law in the
next two years. "Republicans have been slower to the
table, but once it is explained [as a civil rights
issue], they understand it is the right thing to do.
"This is an anomaly of history, and it needs to be
corrected," he said.