D.C.’s Speed Bump: The Constitution

210px-flag_of_washington_dcsvgHere is today’s column from USA Today. Yesterday, the D.C. Vote bill was temporarily pulled from the floor due to the threat of an gun rights amendment. The NRA has threatened to “score” the vote — meaning that members who vote against it would be given a lower score in the annual rankings. This is only a temporary withdrawal as Democrats scramble to deal with the challenge. A similar amendment passed in the Senate after being introduced by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada by a comfortable margin.

D.C.’s speed bump: the Constitution
Congress’ effort to give District a vote is misguided, dangerous

By Jonathan Turley

The expected passage this week of legislation to give the District of Columbia a vote in the House is understandably a matter of great celebration for Washington residents. It is far less of a celebratory moment for many constitutional scholars. In passing this bill, Congress will commit a premeditated unconstitutional act of ignoring the clear text and history of the Constitution to create a new form of voting member. For the first time since the founding of the Republic, members will claim the authority to allow non-state representatives of its choosing to vote in Congress.

There is little debate that the voting status of Washington is obnoxious and should be corrected. Nonetheless, the great wrong done to District residents cannot be righted by violating the Constitution. In 1977, Congress proposed an amendment to give Washington full voting rights like a state. It failed. Now, unable to amend the Constitution, Congress seems resolved to simply ignore it.

Under Article I Section 2, the Framers mandated that “the House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states.” The term “several states” in this clause has been read by the Supreme Court and supporters of this bill as meaning actual states. The District was created with the express purpose of being a non-state entity.

That should end the debate, but advocates hope that Congress’ plenary authority over the District might trump provisions like that Composition Clause — an absurd notion for many constitutional scholars. While the District Clause is part of a relatively minor provision dealing with forts, installations and territories, the Composition Clause is one of the cornerstones for the entire legislative branch. To trump the Composition Clause would be akin to a dingy sinking a battleship.

The Framers’ thinking

Although some might find their reasons incomprehensible today, the Founders had reasons for wanting a capital represented by Congress as a whole instead of a single representative. In 1783, Congress was forced to flee Philadelphia by an angry mob of Revolutionary War veterans demanding their long-overdue back pay. When Congress called on state officials to call out the militia, they refused. The Framers were intent on never relying again on any state for their protection. They also did not want any individual member to have the singular honor or the authority to represent the nation’s capital. The control and representation of the capital would be shared by all the representatives.

The implication of this compromise was obvious and not uniformly popular at the time. Indeed, no one less than Alexander Hamilton proposed an amendment to guarantee voting rights for the capital’s residents. He lost. Others soon came to dislike the arrangement. The original District was a diamond shape (surveyed by George Washington) composed of ceded territory from Virginia and Maryland. Soon after ratification, Virginians chose to “retrocede,” or return, to Virginia. Notably, the remaining District residents rejected retroceding to Maryland, choosing the benefits of being capital residents over being conventional constituents.

A destabilizing precedent

Political convenience has overridden constitutional principle. To sell this ill-conceived plan, sponsors resorted to trading a new vote for the “red” state of Utah for a vote for the “blue” District. To their credit, some Utah delegation members denounced the bill as unconstitutional. In doing so, Congress will create a second constitutional problem by creating an “at large” district in Utah (to avoid forcing members to hold special elections for newly configured districts). The result is that Utahans will be the only citizens represented by two House members — their original lawmaker plus an at-large representative — in violation of the constitutional concept of “one man, one vote.”

What Congress is about to do is dangerous and destabilizing. In claiming the inherent authority to create a new form of voting member, future Congresses could manipulate the voting rolls by creating new seats for any other territory or reservation. For example, Puerto Rico (with a population of 4 million U.S. citizens) would have equal claim to six seats.

I, and others, have put forward plans that range from retrocession to a constitutional amendment. If our Constitution is a covenant of faith among citizens, it is nothing short of a constitutional sacrilege to change the very structure of Congress to avoid seeking a constitutional amendment. In a nation committed to the rule of law, it is as important how we do something as what we do. The Washington vote legislation is an unworthy means to a worthy end.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He has testified at the hearings on the D.C. vote in both the House and the Senate.

USA Today March 4, 2009

63 thoughts on “D.C.’s Speed Bump: The Constitution”

  1. Mespo,

    I know and I appreciate it; it’s just that I always find myself trying to reconcile and clarify the matter (at least for myself) whenever I revisit it.

  2. hmmmm chocolate handguns (drool)

    Now there’s a product liability case just waiting to happen!

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