Representation for the District

By Edward M. Kennedy and Ernest F. Hollings
Wednesday, August 26, 2009 10:47 AM

Editor's note: This op-ed was first published in The Post on May 19, 1978. We republish it today, along with several Kennedy opinions, on the occasion of Kennedy's death.

Under the Constitution of the United States, there is an anachronism that defies justice and tramples one of the basic and most cherished rights of representative government: The citizens of the nation's capital are denied the right to be represented in Congress.

The move to change that -- to enfranchise the city's 700,000 residents -- has strong bipartisan support: Both the Democratic and Republican 1976 party platforms contained planks supporting voting representation in the Senate and House for citizens of the District.

Testifying in 1970 before a Senate committee, Associate Attorney General William H. Rehnquist, now a Supreme Court justice, endorsed a constitutional amendment to achieve this goal. His words emphasized the longstanding injustice perpetrated on Washington residents: "The need for an amendment of that character at this late date in our history is too self-evident for further elaboration; continued denial of voting representation from the District of Columbia can no longer be justified."

Opposition so far seems to spring from various senators' apprehensions concerning four "toos": They fear that District of Columbia senators would be too liberal, too urban, too black or too Democratic. In addition, many senators are reluctant to expand the membership of their "club" to more than 100.

All these considerations should be secondary where citizens' rights are concerned -- and the residents of the capital are citizens. After all, in 1976 they paid $1.2 billion in federal taxes -- more than was collected in 19 states. Individual tax payments surpassed the national average by $327, and were greater than average payments in 47 states. Moreover, of course, district citizens have fought and died in all the nation's wars. Thus, they have endured both taxation and conscription without representation.

Members of Congress have proposed various alternatives to the two-senator, two-representative plan. These include granting statehood to the District, reassigning it to Maryland (the Virginia portion of the District was given back to that state in 1846) or permitting District citizens to vote in Maryland elections.

But the District has been separate from Maryland since 1800, and its people have developed their own community. They deserve representation in their own right, and not merely as an artificial adjunct to a state with which they have no common history. Moreover, the 23rd Amendment established a precedent for considering the District as a separate political entity.

Nor is statehood a plausible answer. Ceding the seat of federal government to the plenary jurisdiction of a state would pose difficult constitutional as well as practical problems.

Wherever we travel around the country, we find people surprised to learn that the residents of Washington cannot vote for members of Congress. This reaction of surprise, coupled with the swift approval that the 23rd Amendment received, makes us confident that their generous and decent impulses would inspire the American people to promptly ratify an amendment granting congressional representation to residents of the capital.

We are already halfway there. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of bipartisan supporters, the House of Representatives recently approved the long-sought amendment and sent it to the Senate. many senators, both Democratic and Republican, have welcomed it, and we have urged our colleagues to act on it before Congress adjourns for the fall elections.

Edward M. Kennedy and Ernest F. Hollings are the Democratic senators from Massachusetts and South Carolina, respectively.

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