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Vote for D.C.

Now that Democrats have control of the House, it’s simply inexplicable that legislation to give voting rights to the District of Columbia’s delegate is not moving rapidly toward passage.

Voting rights for D.C. has broad support in the majority party, including that of both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich.). Yet no hearings have been scheduled on H.R. 328, co-sponsored by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), to give Norton voting rights while giving Utah a fourth Congressional seat and enlarging the House to 437 Members.

The bill does present constitutional problems, as a recent Congressional Research Service report details. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution stipulates that the House shall be made up of Members chosen every two years by the people of the several states. Since D.C. is not a state, but a constitutionally designated federal district, a CRS analysis concluded last month that “it is difficult to identify either Constitutional text or existing case law that would directly support the allocation by statute of the power to vote in the full House of the D.C. delegate.”

On the other hand, Article 1, Section 8 grants Congress exclusive legislative authority “in all cases whatsoever” over the District. As another CRS report suggested last month, there is a conflict here. We suggest that Congress resolve it by passing the Norton-Davis bill promptly and then await a court test to determine its constitutionality. If the measure is struck down, Congress should look for other methods to grant voting rights to the District, which the principle of representative government demands.

The other options include a constitutional amendment; “retrocession,” giving D.C. residents the right to vote in Maryland; and Congressional action making D.C. (or at least part of it) a state. Every one of these solutions presents a political problem — the fact that D.C. is overwhelmingly Democratic — that the Norton-Davis bill neatly skirted by balancing a vote in D.C. with a vote in overwhelmingly Republican Utah.

Meanwhile, the House has taken symbolic action by giving D.C., as well as other U.S. possessions — Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands — a vote when the House meets as a Committee of the Whole. But their votes don’t count if they make the difference in the outcome of legislation. This amounts to the right to participate but not to have an effect.

D.C., with about 570,000 residents, has a larger population than Wyoming and is shy by only about 100,000 of matching three other states — which, of course, have two Senators and at least one House Member. We hope that the Democratic Congress will pass a measure granting D.C. full voting rights —and that President Bush will sign it. In the meantime, however, the Judiciary Committee and the House should get on with passing Norton-Davis as an interim step toward justice.

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