House Democrats and 22 Republicans congratulated themselves recently on rectifying a historic injustice by voting to give the residents of the nation’s capital a member of Congress with full voting rights.
The goal is laudable, but the means the lawmakers chose is truly problematic. The bill, which passed 241-177, would redress that grievance by expanding the number of House members from 435 to 437.
There’s nothing sacred about the number 435. It was set at that level in 1911 as constant expansion from the original 65 threatened to make the institution unwieldy. This proposed deal would give the reliably Democratic District of Columbia a member and reliably Republican and fast-growing Utah an at-large seat.
This is not quite the fair trade-off it seems. The Constitution does give the House members a free hand in choosing their number. But the Constitution is unmistakably clear that the House “shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the People of the several States.” Article 1, Section 2 creating the House goes on to specify the “states” or “state” seven more times.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to block the bill on constitutional grounds, and if he can’t, President Bush has pledged to veto it for the same reasons. Quite simply, the District of Columbia is not a state, and attempts to make it one have failed twice in the last 30 years, so it has embarked on this end-run around 230 years of constitutional history.
Currently, the representative of the District of Columbia, like those from Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam, can vote in House committees but not on final passage on the House floor. It may be unfair, but the solution is not to play fast and loose with the Constitution.