Congress has the authority to grant the District voting representation in the U.S. House of Representatives without amending the U.S. Constitution, former U.S. solicitor general Kenneth W. Starr testified yesterday.
Starr's endorsement, delivered before the House Government Reform Committee, helps a new bid to enfranchise 570,000 residents in the District by adding the voice of a leading conservative who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the committee's chairman, introduced legislation Tuesday that 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 House would revert to its present size after reapportionment for the 2012 election, and the District would retain its seat.
"In my judgment, Congress enjoys constitutional authority . . . to grant to District citizens the right to vote in congressional elections," Starr said. "Fundamental principles of representative democracy support Congress's extension of the franchise" in this way.
Starr based his reasoning on the "seat of government" clause in the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress "power . . . to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the District. He noted that the courts have recognized Congress's authority to treat the District as a state in interstate commerce regulation and interstate lawsuits.
His argument picked up on findings in a 2000 Supreme Court case brought by 57 District residents and the D.C. government, who argued that the Constitution gave residents the right to representation in Congress. Although federal courts have found no such right in the Constitution, they have indicated that Congress could enact a solution.
A similar argument was presented before the panel yesterday by lawyers with D.C. Appleseed Center, a nonpartisan public interest group in the District, and their counsel, Rick Bress, former assistant to the U.S. solicitor general and law clerk to current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The testimony came as supporters sought to build momentum for legislation that they concede could take years to advance. In lining up a roster of conservative experts, Davis said he hoped to reassure skeptical Republican House members and strict constitutionalists about the feasibility of the bill.
Separately, the House Government Reform Committee agreed to retain former Bush assistant U.S. attorney general Viet D. Dinh for $25,000 to provide a formal opinion. Davis expects to approach other leading Republicans, including Bob Dole, to promote the legislation at an event at the GOP convention in New York City in August. Last night, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) addressed the District's need to have full voting rights in Congress at a fundraiser he hosted at the Palm Restaurant for the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Williams told the gathering of about 25 that Sharpton had fueled the debate for statehood during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. "He speaks to voting rights all over the country," Williams said.
Sharpton said he intends to trumpet the issue of D.C. statehood during his speech in July at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He called it a "scar" on democracy in this country.
"I don't know how we can go to foreign shores talking about democracy as long as we can't vote right in our nation's capital," Sharpton said. "It's a civil rights issue."