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The Wall Street Journal

A Senator From D.C.?

By John Steele Gordon

January 14, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The District of Columbia held the first-in-the-nation presidential primary election yesterday. Well, sort of. It's non-binding, and few showed up for an election that makes no difference. The election's real purpose is to protest the fact that, along with children and felons, D.C. residents don't get to vote for members of Congress.

When the Founding Fathers called for the establishment of a federal district to serve as the capital, they were concerned with making sure that the federal government would not be subject to the laws of any state and thus give that state undue influence. It's unlikely they even considered the problem of congressional representation for the district's citizens.

At first, there was no reason why they should have. After the District of Columbia was created in 1790, the residents continued to vote for members of Congress as though they were still residents of Maryland and Virginia. No one objected. Indeed, one Maryland representative during that period lived in Georgetown. (Virginia's portion of the District was ceded back to the state in 1846.)

But when Congress moved to the new capital in 1800, it did what politicians always try to do: acquire power. The Organic Acts of 1801 stripped the residents of the District of the right to vote for members of Congress and imposed a local government. In 1878, largely for racist reasons, Congress stripped the District of any rights even to self-government. The District would not elect a mayor and city council again until 1975.

In the early days, of course, Washington, D.C., was, except for the Capitol, White House and an ever increasing number of monuments, little more than a sleepy Southern town. Relatively few people were disenfranchised by Congress's power grab. But the New Deal and World War II changed everything in Washington as they did elsewhere. By the mid-20th century, Washington had become a major American city (although one noted, according to President Kennedy, for its "Northern charm and Southern efficiency"). It was, however, a major American city whose citizens had no vote in American government and this was, self-evidently, grossly unfair.

The problem was partially addressed in 1960 when Congress passed the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, giving Washington residents the right to vote for presidential electors numbering no more than those of the least populous state; in other words, three. While surely a step in the right direction, the Amendment introduced one possible new problem. The Electoral College had had 535 votes; the Amendment gave it 538, making a tie -- which would throw the election into the House of Representatives -- possible. (In 2000, had Gore carried Florida and Bush Pennsylvania, that is exactly what would have happened.)

But while the people of the District of Columbia could now vote for president, they still had no representation in Congress. For a nation founded on the cry of "No taxation without representation," it was a disgrace. In 1970, the House allowed the District to elect a "delegate," currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, but she cannot vote, only debate.

In 1978, a heavily Democratic Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution that would have given the District the same Congressional representation it would have had if it were a state, including two senators. The Amendment had a time limit of seven years, however, and in 1985 the amendment died when only 16 states had ratified it out of the 38 required. It is not hard to see why most states declined to ratify. The amendment would have created a situation every bit as unfair as that which it sought to remedy. Washington is a city and bears no resemblance to a state. Even tiny Rhode Island has a land area 18 times that of D.C. Worse, why should Washington, only the 23rd-largest city, have two senators of its very own, while, say, Nashville, the 24th, has to share its senators with Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga and its own suburbs?

Advocates of treating D.C. like a state point out that some states have smaller populations. Actually, according to Census Bureau 2002 estimates, only Wyoming has a smaller population than D.C., which, like most large eastern cities, has been losing population to its suburbs for decades. Senators representing the District of Columbia would in a very real sense be Senators representing the federal government, an idea that would have horrified the Founding Fathers.

This, of course, is one reason why the Democrats, the party of big government, love the idea of making D.C. a state or the equivalent of a state. The other reason is that it would mean two permanently Democratic seats in the Senate. Just consider: In 1984, when Ronald Reagan swept 49 states in an historic landslide, Walter Mondale carried D.C. with 85% of the vote.

With the idea of making D.C. a state or its equivalent a non-starter, at least while the Republican Party has anything to say in the matter, what else can be done to right this ancient wrong? Repealing appropriate parts of the Organic Acts of 1801 would, in theory at least, restore the status quo ante, and allow residents of the District to vote for members of Congress as though they were citizens of Maryland, at least if Maryland agreed. But in this endlessly litigious age, such relief would undoubtedly be tied up in courts for years.

Rep. Tom Davis (R., Va.) recently proposed giving the District a seat in the House by statute and creating an extra one that would go, mathematically, to Utah, and would, presumably, be safely enough Republican to balance the sure Democratic seat of the District. But that idea is hard to square with the Constitutional requirement that House members be chosen "by the People of the several States."

Instead, the following constitutional amendment might be the answer:

Amendment XXVIII

Section I. The Twenty-third article of Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section II. For purposes of voting in federal elections and apportionment only, citizens of the District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall be regarded as being and counted as citizens of the state that ceded the land for such purpose, provided the Legislature of that state so agrees by ratifying this Amendment.

Section III. Congress shall have the power to enforce this amendment with appropriate legislation.


This would give the people of D.C. exactly the same representation in Congress that the citizens of every other city in the country have but no more than that. To be sure, Maryland would have to agree. The Constitution guarantees that no state can be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent and that is the one part of the Constitution that cannot be amended.

But Maryland has little, if anything, to lose by agreeing, and something to gain. With the District's population counted as part of its own for apportionment purposes it would gain at least an additional seat in the House and one more electoral vote, increasing its political clout in the federal government. And its senators' attention to Maryland interests would not be meaningfully diluted by having to cater to D.C. interests as well. The vast Maryland suburbs of Washington have long been the linchpin of Maryland politics anyway, and they have interests that are largely in common with the District right next door.

And Maryland would have the satisfaction of knowing that by its gracious consent, it has made it possible for this country to right an ancient wrong in a way that is fair to both the people of Washington, D.C., and the rest of the country as well. The Old Line State would be fully entitled to begin calling itself the Good Neighbor State.


Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power," due out this fall from HarperCollins.

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