A former senior Justice Department official in the Bush administration has concluded that a constitutional amendment is not needed to grant the District voting representation in the House.
The 25-page opinion by Viet D. Dinh, a former assistant U.S. attorney general, was commissioned by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) as part of his effort to grant the District a vote in the House.
Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, called Dinh's conclusion a key development.
"This legal opinion and a finding by our committee making this a statutory, as opposed to a constitutional, issue makes it much more likely for the city," Davis told interviewer Mark Plotkin yesterday on WTOP-AM radio. "I think it should lay that issue to rest."
The Davis bill would temporarily expand the House to 437 seats by adding one member from the District and another member from Utah, which has three. The House would revert to 435 after reapportionment for the 2012 election; the District would retain its seat.
The bill, which is dead for the year, faces long odds of passage. But supporters said the opinion from Dinh, a prominent conservative, helps put the effort on more solid legal footing. Davis said he will reintroduce the bill next year.
Opponents have said the Constitution explicitly reserves congressional representation to the states. A 1978 proposed amendment to give the District a vote in the House and two votes in the Senate fell far short of ratification.
Dinh, a law professor at Georgetown University, concluded that the Constitution grants Congress "ample power" under the so-called District clause to legislate representation for citizens within its borders. Dinh noted that Congress allowed exactly that between 1790 and 1800, when Virginia and Maryland ceded the territory that became the District and when the federal government formally created the capital.
Davis, whose committee oversees the District, said that his goal is to enlist 25 Republican co-sponsors and that an additional 30 to 40 GOP votes could be won on the floor. The bill has six co-sponsors, all Republicans.
Davis has said his effort is aimed at bridging partisan divisions over granting the District, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, a vote in the narrowly divided House.
Utah, which is overwhelmingly Republican, was the next state in line to win another House member after the 2000 U.S. Census, falling 22 residents short.
Davis said he hoped Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) could rally House Democratic leaders to support the measure. They have refused to support the bill, arguing that it could threaten the redistricting of Utah's lone Democratic House member, Rep. Jim Matheson.
Norton has said she welcomed bipartisan efforts to grant congressional representation to the District, but she has explicitly supported only her own bill to give the District two senators and one representative.
The House Republican leadership, Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and President Bush have opposed voting representation in the District in the past or have withheld their support. But Davis said none has told him to drop the effort.
Davis said that he has spoken with White House political advisers and that he hopes to enlist such prominent Republicans as former Senate leader Robert F. Dole and former congressman Jack Kemp, who ran together on the 1996 presidential ticket.
The House committee paid $25,000 for the 25-page opinion, which also was drafted by Bancroft Associates and Adam H. Charnes of the law firm Kilpatrick Stockton.