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Washington's Muted Majority…Take Two… This Gambit's Legit. D.C. Should Play

Washington's Muted Majority


July 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Even the license plates of the District of Columbia now broadcast the sad state of hobbled democracy for residents of the nation's capital: "Taxation Without Representation." Through most of the abstruse history of this hybrid city-state, the residents have not been allowed their own voting member of Congress. This deprivation has long been a civil rights issue for the Democrats. But control of the city's fate, from its budget to its ballot initiatives, has rested firmly with overseers in Congress, who are not given to surrendering much authority back to the 572,000 people who do not elect them. It wasn't until a century after the Civil War that Washingtonians were allowed to vote for president.

But now a ranking House Republican, Tom Davis of Virginia, is taking up the city's cause. He proposes to enlarge the House membership to 437 from 435, with a voting seat for Washington, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, plus another one, presumably Republican for balance, for a state like Utah, which barely lost a seat in recent redistricting.

A constitutional amendment to empower Washington voters was tried in the past and failed. But Mr. Davis has come up with a new approach, the Congressional passage of a law, not an amendment – a legal and far simpler path. "It's hard to make a straight-faced argument that the capital of the free world shouldn't have a vote in Congress," says Mr. Davis, the chairman of the Government Reform Committee. "If we're serious, let's put a serious bill on the table."

This approach would not immediately address the issue of Senate representation for the District and the larger question of full statehood. It is also ridiculous that Congress would right this obvious injustice to Washingtonians only if it could also give people in Utah a little more representation than they deserve. But Mr. Davis's half-a-loaf of democracy would still be a step forward.

Take Two


July 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Salt Lake Tribune, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Adding two more members to the 435 now allotted to the U.S. House of Representatives -- an increase of less than one half of 1 percent -- could go a long way toward solving some big problems in two very different parts of the country.

If Utah is one of those parts, the state will have a chance to re- re-draw its congressional districts, and have a chance to do it right this time.

The idea, being floated by a Republican congressman from Virginia, is to give the half-million residents of the District of Columbia something they've never had: a voting member of Congress. It is a move that is long overdue but, because Washington is the land of horse trading, there must be a quid for the quo.

The plan, according to reports, is that because D.C.'s member is almost certain to be a Democrat, another seat would be added in a substantially Republican state. Someplace such as, oh, say, Utah.

The Beehive State lost a potential fourth seat in the House last time out to rapidly growing North Carolina mostly, it was argued, because the feds wouldn't count some 11,000 LDS missionaries who were working overseas at the time.

A law -- not the Constitution -- sets membership in the House at 435, plus nonvoting delegates from such places as D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Another law could change that number, without the rigmarole associated with a constitutional amendment. (A voice for D.C. in the Senate, on the other hand, would require a very unlikely constitutional amendment, similar to the one that granted the District three Electoral College votes in presidential races some 40 years ago.)

D.C. would only get to elect one member of Congress, so it wouldn't have to divide itself into districts, the way most states do, and so won't be tempted to carve up its own territory to give advantage to one party, faction or candidate, the way Utah has done.

The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature managed to draw three districts that so diluted any Democratic influences in urban Salt Lake City that it was something of a political miracle that a Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson, pulled out his re-election last year.

If the deal is done, and Utah gets another vote in Congress, the state should show its appreciation for this added influence in national affairs by turning the job of redistricting over to a bipartisan -- or nonpartisan -- commission that will draw district boundaries based on logic, fairness and common interests.

To treat this gift of added power in Congress in any other way would be to once again embrace the petty, partisan ways that defined Utah's last redistricting.

This Gambit's Legit. D.C. Should Play

By Mark Rush

July 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

LEXINGTON, Va. - Does the District of Columbia's Road to Representation lead to Salt Lake City? That's one way to interpret Virginia Rep. Tom Davis's tantalizing proposal to give the nation's capital a full-fledged seat in the House of Representatives. It almost sounds to good to be true: a ranking Republican offering a congressional vote to doggedly Democratic D.C. The Democrats must be salivating at the prospect.

Ah, but this largess comes with a catch: Davis's proposal entails expanding the size of the House not by one, but by two. Utah, which narrowly missed receiving an extra seat in the 2000 reapportionment, stands next in line. (Another 857 residents, or being able to include overseas Mormon missionaries, would have clinched it.) While there are many good reasons to grant statehood to the District, not the least of which is the "fair and just" right to a vote in Congress, as Davis puts it, I'll bet few of the city's advocates have ever linked its fate to that of rugged, reliably Republican Utah. Yet in the Byzantine world of apportionment politics, this odd coupling could represent a sweetheart deal for the District -- and its surest shot at securing a measure of legislative parity.

For starters, unlike statehood, expanding the number of seats in the House requires no constitutional amendment. The Framers set no cap. They left it to Congress to decide how many people each member should represent and to add seats accordingly. As the country grew, so grew the House. By 1800, the original 65-member body had nearly doubled, to 105 members. If today's 435-seat House seems set in stone, that's because it has been stuck at that level since 1911.

Davis's proposal to add two seats in mid-decade also avoids a host of controversial problems associated with the apportionment process, that mad scramble to recarve districts to reflect changes in the states' populations. Since states already have redrawn their congressional maps to reflect the latest census count, inserting a state in mid-decade essentially requires an adjustment in the size of the House of Representatives, as happened when Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union in 1959, and the House stood temporarily at 437 members. The only alternative would be to re-reapportion the whole House, take away someone's seat, and give it to the District. That unfortunate someone would be . . . North Carolina, the state that narrowly beat out Utah for the 435th seat in the last round.

Follow that? Don't worry, the intricate calculus behind the decennial reapportionment can flummox even the canniest political strategist. But so much rides on the math that the state of Montana argued before the Supreme Court in 1992 in favor of changing the formula used to calculate the order by which states are ranked when it comes to allocating seats. (The United States is not alone in splitting mathematical hairs, by the way. The success of negotiations concerning the European Union's new constitution may turn on a similar question concerning how many seats each member state will have in the European Parliament.)

Credit the Founding Fathers for dreaming up this diabolical game of musical chairs. In the early days of the Republic, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson locked horns over this very issue. Since the states had different populations, it was impossible to make all congressional districts equal in size. Hamilton suggested that the fairest way to minimize the disparity was to assign states their representation based on the "average" size of a congressional district (calculated by dividing the country's population by the total number of congressional seats). Each state's population is then divided by that number to determine its number of seats. That's almost never a whole number, so those states with the "largest remainder" are assigned the leftover seats.

But Hamilton's method offered no formula for resolving ties. This was a big problem if the tie was between a large and small state. Which should get the last seat? Jefferson offered a more complex method that would avoid the problem of breaking ties. The country has swung between the two formulations ever since, revealing just how fractious political pie-carving can get. Jefferson's method won the day at first, and with tweaks by Daniel Webster, lasted until 1850. Then it was Hamilton's turn. But his method produced an odd outcome: In 1881, the Census Bureau demonstrated that increasing the size of the House from 299 to 300 seats would result in Alabama's losing a House seat. Not until 1911 did the House resolve this "Alabama paradox," adopting the method of equal proportions similar to Jefferson's and Webster's formula.

But there are many different ways of dividing state populations, and each has its sore losers. Hence, Montana could argue, as it did in 1992, that if the apportionment had been calculated using a different set of factors, it would have gained an additional seat. As things now stand, Montana has just one House member to represent more than 900,000 people, while Wyoming's lone congressman represents about 498,000.

Such issues of "fair division" rarely capture the public's imagination unless they collide with constitutional crises like the 2000 presidential election. Many critics argued that Bush's winning the electoral vote while losing the popular vote proved that the electoral college winner-take-all system was inherently unfair and needed drastic redesign. But those electoral votes are derived from the apportionment formula. So if you want to make presidential elections fairer, you might first look to the math behind the decennial census.

The mathematics of fair representation had Hamilton and Jefferson whaling on their abacuses two centuries ago, though the problem they confronted was a little different. Back then they only had to allocate congressional seats among 13 former colonies and several new states in the making. Early in the 21st century, the ramifications of adding states or seats and subsequently reapportioning the Congress are potentially mind-boggling.

How mind-boggling? In a class I teach on the redistricting process, I ask my students to ponder what would happen if Puerto Rico became the 51st state. Their first reaction: Is Puerto Rico Democratic or Republican? But that issue really concerns the Senate, where all states are represented equally. The more important question is: If we did not increase the size of the House, who would lose representation?

Puerto Rico is about the size of Kentucky. Its 2000 population of about 3.8 million people would have entitled it to six congressional seats. If no expansion occurred, those seats would have come at the expense of Georgia, Iowa, Florida, Ohio, California and North Carolina -- the states that were allocated seats 430 through 435 in the 2000 apportionment.

Imagine the fallout! As redistricting forced each of these states to sacrifice one House member, their congressional incumbents would vie to avoid being chosen as the sacrificial lamb. On top of that, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida are all covered by the pre-clearance provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which means they would have to submit their redistricting plans for federal approval.

It took until 2001 for the Supreme Court to resolve North Carolina's 1990 redistricting controversy in Easley v. Cromartie, permitting states to consider race when redoing their political maps. Had the District been pressing for statehood a decade ago, the double whammy of having to redraw district lines in accordance with the Voting Rights Act while ponying up a seat might have prompted exhausted Tarheel legislators to beg the city to abandon its quest.

The lesson for Democrats and District voting rights advocates is clear: Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, even if it is ridden by a ranking member of the GOP who heads the committee that has city oversight. Skeptics may question Davis's political motives -- after all, Utah stands to pick up an electoral vote along with a seat. But, his proposal to expand the size of the House (and by extension, the Senate) to accommodate the District really is the simplest recourse. It will spare the District taxation without representation, and console Utah for now. But don't be surprised if several other states start scrambling to calculate how they will fare in the next apportionment round. I believe I hear the Founding Fathers chuckling in their graves.

Mark Rush, author of several books and articles on redistricting and voting rights, teaches politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

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