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The Defense Bill and D.C. Representation Don't Mix

Posted By Nathaniel Ward On October 26, 2009 @ 11:13 am In First Principles | Comments Disabled

Since the Democrats retook control of Congress in January 2007, liberal lawmakers have been working to advance one of their favorite causes: granting the District of Columbia a full seat in the House of Representatives. They have tried on several occasions to pass legislation to accomplish this and have been thwarted each time, most recently in the spring [1].

In a new effort to ram the bill through, its backers may try to attach it to the conference report of the must-pass defense spending bill [2]. By linking the two unrelated bills, the Left has put Constitution-minded lawmakers in a difficult position: they can vote for important defense legislation that contains unconstitutional provisions, or they can vote against it and be pilloried for denying funding to the troops.

This is just the latest in a series of tricks to drum up political support for the plan. For example, in a transparent effort to garner Republican support, the D.C. Voting Rights Act of 2009 would also grant an additional House seat to GOP-leaning Utah. And last week, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) even went so far as to compare the status of District residents to that of Baghdadis [3] living under the thumb of a murderous Iraqi dictatorship.

Unfortunately, it seems the Left is simply engaged in rhetoric about this important question. The plan’s proponents appear unwilling to engage in a substantive debate about the merits of the proposal, which runs counter to the plain language of the Constitution and the Founders’ intentions for the nation’s capital [4]. The Constitution makes clear that “Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several states,” and the District of Columbia is not a state. Simple legislation cannot change this fact, as earlier Congresses understood when they passed constitutional amendments to resolve the question of District representation.

Heritage’s Hans von Spakovsky explains that the legislation’s principal justification stands on weak constitutional footing [5]:

About the only argument that the bill’s proponents can muster is that because the Constitution gives Congress the right to exercise “exclusive Legislation” over the District, it has the ability to provide the District with a House seat.

That’s a losing argument. The Constitution’s provision giving Congress the power to run the affairs of the District of Columbia — the seat of the nation’s capitol — doesn’t wipe out other parts of the document. Congress could not, for example, restrict the First Amendment rights of District residents.

There is a strong case to be made that District residents ought to enjoy representation in Congress. After all, our nation was founded on the principle of consent of the governed. But even then, our Founders maintained that this consent need not be given through direct representation, as my colleague Joe Postell and I argue [6]:

This does not mean, however, that citizens are entitled to being governed exclusively by directly chosen representatives. “It is sufficient for such a government,” Madison continued, “that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people.”

For instance, the Founders maintained that the judicial branch is a representative branch, even though its members are only indirectly appointed by the people, through the chief executive (who is also appointed indirectly by the people). By this reasoning, the District is already represented in the national government to a certain extent, because it votes for President through the Electoral College.

Since the Left has seen its legislative efforts slowed of late, it’s perhaps no surprise that they want to enact parts of their agenda where they can. But that’s no reason to hold funding for our men and women in uniform hostage to a law that violates both our Founders’ vision and the plain meaning of our nation’s highest law.


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URL to article: http://blog.heritage.org/2009/10/26/the-defense-bill-and-dc-representation-dont-mix/

URLs in this post:

[1] most recently in the spring: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/09/AR2009060902083.html

[2] attach it to the conference report of the must-pass defense spending bill: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/16/AR2009101603263.html

[3] compare the status of District residents to that of Baghdadis: http://www.c-spanarchives.org/congress/?q=node/77531&id=9046266

[4] counter to the plain language of the Constitution and the Founders’ intentions for the nation’s capital: http://www.heritage.org/Research/LegalIssues/lm37.cfm

[5] stands on weak constitutional footing: http://www.heritage.org/Press/Commentary/ed022309a.cfm

[6] as my colleague Joe Postell and I argue: http://www.heritage.org/research/thought/wm2304.cfm

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