TOPICS > Politics

Effort to Allocate House Seats to D.C., Utah Clears Major Hurdle in Senate

BY Admin  February 24, 2009 at 8:10 PM EST

DC voting march; Photo by flickr.com/allison_dc

The Senate bill, which garnered enough votes to avoid
filibuster, would expand the House of Representatives to 437 members with the
addition of new seats for D.C. and Utah — if it survives what is expected to
be lively floor debate and possible future legal challenges.

Past votes denying the move to add a voting seat for the
nation’s capital “left the citizens of the district with the wholly
unsought-after distinction of being the only residents of a democratically
ruled national capital in the world who have no say in how their nation is
governed. It’s really astounding,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who
sponsored the measure with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Listen to Ilir Zherka, executive director of
the advocacy group DC Vote, discuss the impact on District residents and the road
ahead:

More than 4,000 people from across the nation called their
senators Monday asking them to support the effort, Zherka said. Callers from
D.C., who don’t have a voting senator either, were directed to lawmakers who
might be uncertain.

The D.C. Republican Committee hand-delivered a letter to GOP
senators urging them to support the bill.

“More than half a million U.S. citizens who live in
Washington, D.C., pay federal income taxes at a higher per capita rate than all
but one state, yet we have no vote on raising or spending federal revenue,”
the letter reads. “We serve in our armed forces but have no vote on going
to war.”

Washington has been without a vote since Congress took
control of the newly created capital in 1801, but did not provide residents
with voting rights.

The main argument against the effort is that the
Constitution makes clear that the House should consist of members chosen
“by the people of the several states.” Because the district is not a
state, it does not qualify, putting the measure on shaky legal ground.

“The meaning of this language is not ambiguous,”
said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “Only states can be represented in the House of
Representatives.”

According to the Washington Post, some opponents also fear
the measure could lay the groundwork for adding two U.S. Senators from the
heavily-Democratic District, potentially giving Democrats added influence in
the chamber.

Supporters, meanwhile, cite a clause in the Constitution
stating the Congress shall have legislative authority over the district that
becomes the capital “in all cases whatsoever.”

The Senate vote to debate the bill sets the stage for more
legislative hurdles and a probable court challenge if the bill is enacted into
law. But with the Senate action, D.C.’s 600,000 residents have their best
chance of securing a real voice in Congress since a proposed constitutional
amendment to enfranchise the federal capital failed a quarter-century ago.

Residents of the District of Columbia have long chafed over
their voting status. For nearly a decade many have displayed license plates adorned
with the phrase “taxation without representation” to signal outrage
and educate visitors.

If supporters can curb expected amendments to the bill and a
possible GOP effort to block a final vote, the Senate could pass the bill later
this week. The House Judiciary Committee is voting on it Wednesday. House
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said he expects to bring it to the
House floor next week.

The measure before the Senate would award one House seat to
overwhelmingly Democratic D.C. In an attempt to win bipartisan support, the
other seat would go to Republican-leaning Utah, the state next in line to get
an extra seat based on the 2000 census.

Utah’s Hatch said that for 200 years courts have treated
D.C. as a state in such matters as interstate commerce, taxation, and federal
lawsuits. “This legislation’s constitutional foundation is solid,” he
said.

But Utah’s second senator, Bob Bennett, who supported the
bill two years ago, says he will oppose it this time. He cited constitutional concerns
and said he was confident that Utah will pick up a fourth congressional seat
anyway after the 2010 national census.

Listen to Salt Lake Tribune reporter Thomas Burr
discuss how the measure has divided Utah’s congressional delegation:

Utah’s newest congressman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, will be part
of the effort to block the bill. He supports D.C. getting a seat, but through
the process of a constitutional amendment. Utah will get another representative
after the next Census and shouldn’t be tied to the measure, he added.

“This is just political bribery to include Utah in
it,” Chaffetz said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s all
this is.”

The House passed a similar measure two years ago, but the
bill was defeated during a procedural vote in the Senate, falling three votes
short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster.

President Barack Obama, who co-sponsored the legislation
when he was a senator, is expected to sign the measure if it reaches his desk,
which could give D.C. residents a representative with full voting rights by
January 2011.

The district has been represented since 1991 by Del. Eleanor
Holmes Norton. Norton, like five other delegates from island territories, can
vote in committees and on some amendments on the House floor but not on final
passage of legislation.

“All lights are on go. There can be no turning back
now,” Holmes Norton said, according to the Associated Press.