A bill to grant more than 500,000 District citizens a voting member in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time was introduced last night by House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).
Staking out uncharted constitutional and political terrain, the D.C. Fairness in Representation Act would temporarily expand the House by two members to 437 seats, adding one seat for a representative from the District and a fourth member from Utah. The change would be effective Jan. 3. The House would revert to its present size after the 2010 U.S. Census. The District would keep a vote, and the remaining 434 seats would be divided among the states.
Introduced by a key Republican chairman in the GOP-controlled House and endorsed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the D.C. Council, the long-awaited bill marks the best opportunity for the nation's capital to mount its case for the franchise in Congress, advocates said. It also faces steep odds, critics noted.
"Our nation is founded on the principles of 'one person, one vote' and 'government by the consent of the governed,' " the bill states, noting that District residents pay billions in federal taxes and sent sons and daughters to die in every major war since the Revolutionary War.
Davis, in an interview, said he intended to make a pragmatic effort to solve a two-century-old dispute over the U.S. Constitution's failure to extend voting representation to residents of the nation's capital. He also acknowledged the political and legal struggle ahead.
"We condemn the Chinese for yanking democratic rights in Hong Kong. We're spending billions to try to establish democracy in Baghdad. . . . It is crystal clear, to me at least, that the capital of the free world ought to have a vote in Congress," said Davis, a 55-year-old House leader who has oversight of the District and federal government operations and who chaired the GOP majority's 2000 and 2002 election efforts.
"I recognize that there is no clear legal authority permitting what I propose," he added in a memo to colleagues, "but that is because what I propose has never been attempted before."
The bill faces its first hurdle in a hearing before Davis's panel today, with three other D.C. voting bills.
Political analysts expect none to pass this year, with Congress facing an election-shortened calendar. Democratic leaders are sharply skeptical, but Republican House and key committee leaders and the Bush administration have not slammed the door on considering the Davis measure in the next Congress should it gain momentum.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) proposes giving the District two senators and one House member, following up a symbolic measure defeated in the House 277 to 153 in 1993. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) would count District votes toward the election of Maryland's U.S. House and Senate members. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) would retrocede most of the District to Maryland, where residents would vote as state citizens. Maryland leaders oppose both proposals.
Norton said the hearing marks a first step and "the first reemergence of bipartisan support for voting rights in the Congress in 30 years. . . . Bipartisan support for D.C. voting rights is the breakthrough we need to end this denial."
From the District's creation in 1800, its architects have ranked local democracy secondary to preserving full federal authority in the capital enclave. With 571,000 people in 2002, however, the District has more residents than the state of Wyoming, which has a population of 499,000.
Congress narrowly approved a constitutional amendment giving the District one House vote and two Senate votes in 1978. But only a fraction of the 38 states required agreed to ratify the plan for a majority-black, Democratic city, splintering along rural, racial and partisan lines.
Davis's proposal would complete the District's odyssey for equal representation by linking the capital's interests to overwhelmingly white, Republican Utah.
The state fell short of gaining another seat in the House after the 2000 Census reapportionment by 86 residents. Utah lost a lawsuit charging that residents serving 18-month missions abroad for the Mormon church were undercounted.
The bill's greatest hurdle may be partisanship, with a GOP House majority hanging on by just 11 votes and both parties fighting over every seat.
Republicans led by Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Tex.) have outmaneuvered Democrats by pushing through congressional redistricting plans in states such as Colorado and Texas.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the Davis proposal "not realistic" because it could enable the GOP to redraw a Utah House district held by Rep. Jim Matheson (D). Pelosi added that the District should not settle for less than two senators and one representative.
Today's hearing also will address the question of whether Congress can extend the vote to the District without amending the Constitution. Addressing concerns by lawyers and GOP conservatives, Kenneth W. Starr, former U.S. solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush and independent counsel, will testify today on behalf of the measure. Davis' committee also will retain a legal opinion from Viet D. Dinh, former assistant attorney general to current President Bush.