The democracy exception

Friday, December 24, 2010

NEWS STORIES this week on the 2010 Census and what it will mean for congressional reapportionment were filled with intriguing data and tallies of winners and losers. Texas gained four seats and New York lost two; Montana will have far more than the average number of constituents per representative, Rhode Island far fewer.

All of this is, as we say, intriguing, but it's also infuriating. It's hard to feel sorry for Montanans when more than 600,000 people will end up, again, with no representation at all. We're talking (again) about the District of Columbia, whose population grew over the past 10 years by almost 30,000, to 601,723. That's good news in every respect but one: It means that 601,723 U.S. citizens will be called upon to honor every obligation of citizenship - obeying laws, paying taxes, making themselves available for military service - without any say in the making of their laws. Republican leaders who seem satisfied with this arrangement should explain their conception of democracy.

There's a partisan dimension to this, since the District would be almost certain to elect a Democrat, but also a reasonable solution. After the 2000 Census, then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.) devised an ingenious compromise. Since Utah was the state that had just missed, based on population growth, gaining an extra seat, why not expand the House by two, giving one seat to the District and one to heavily Republican Utah? The proposal passed the Senate, but the ethically challenged John Ensign (R-Nev.) engineered a noxious gun amendment that ended up dooming the measure.

This time around, the just-miss state is North Carolina, which has a lot of Republican voters and a Republican-controlled legislature (in charge of drawing the congressional district map), so a similar deal is imaginable. Acting now would allow the balance to remain in effect for a decade. But it would take some pushing by Democrats who claim to be pro-democracy but haven't done much about it (yes, we mean President Obama) and some acknowledgment from Republicans that taxation without representation is un-American.

Early signs aren't good. Republican leaders' proposed rules, also released this week, would push the District backward, removing from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) the vote she is currently allowed in the "committee of the whole," where a fair amount of serious business takes place. Ms. Norton said she would seek to change the mind of incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "Last month I explained in a letter to Mr. Boehner the unique offense residents have felt during the years they have paid taxes with no say whatsoever on the House floor," Ms. Norton said in a statement. "Residents have had to cope with no vote in Congress, but they have expressed particular consternation at the thought of losing the only vote they now possess."

"Particular consternation" is a polite way of describing what Washingtonians, and supporters of democracy across the country, are entitled to feel.

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