I’M GOING to nail you here, an interviewer taunted Eleanor Holmes Norton,Washington,DC’s,veteran congresswoman. I checked your voting record. You have not voted once while you’ve been in office. Do you want to defend that? The interviewer was Stephen Colbert,a comic. But his point was serious. The representative from the nation’s capital can speak,but has no vote on whether bills become law. Ms Holmes Norton is not the only one who thinks that is unfair.
On February 24th the Senate voted to begin debate on a bill to enfranchise Washingtonians. A parade of senators called it unimaginable and really astounding that the 600,000 Americans who live in the district have no vote in Congress. If the bill passes the Senate intact,it should sail through the House of Representatives,and Barack Obama says he will sign it.
The snag is that the bill is unconstitutional. Members of the House of Representatives must be chosen by the People of the several States,says the constitution. The District of Columbia is not a state,nor part of one.
The problem could be solved by amending the constitution,but this is hard. An amendment ratified in 1961 gave Washingtonians the right to vote in presidential elections. But a proposal in 1978 to give them representation in Congress was not ratified by three-quarters of the states,and so failed.
Another option would be to merge most of DC into a neighbouring state,such as Maryland,perhaps leaving only a rump of federal territory around Capitol Hill. That would give Washingtonians the same rights as other Americans. But they aren’t itching to lose their independence. Nor are suburban Marylanders begging to have DC’s urban problems dumped on them. And there is a bigger political game afoot.
Campaigners see a seat in the House as a first step towards statehood,or something like it. That would imply two new senators,giving DC,with 0.2 per cent of the population,nearly 2 per cent of the votes in the Senate. (Wyoming,though,has two senators,and even fewer inhabitants.) Since Washingtonians vote solidly Democratic,Democrats like this idea. Republicans,not surprisingly,are less keen.
The current Senate bill offers a compromise. Utah,a Republican stronghold with a growing population,gets another House seat to balance the Democratic gain in DC. Some Republicans are satisfied. Some think the party will do itself more harm than good if it opposes voting rights for a mostly black city. It’s an important civil right, Michael Steele,the party chairman,told the Washington City Paper.
But offering Utah another seat (which it could lose after the next census) does not resolve the constitutional conundrum. The courts may strike the bill down. And rule-of-law enthusiasts fret that if politicians do not feel bound by the constitution,there is no telling what they will do next.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009