Congressional skullduggery

I’ve been watching the battle over giving Washington, D.C. representation in the United States House of Representatives with some amusement.  If you don’t know about this, and you like political arcana, catch up.

As you might know, D.C. license plates proclaim it’s the land of “Taxation Without Representation.”  (That’s a great automotive statement easily surpassing New York City’s “Don’t Even Think of Parking Here” signs.)  People in Washington think they’re being cheated out of having a Congressman and two Senators, even though they’re free to move to a real State at any time.  They do have a non-voting representative, whose sole job seems to be House jester.

People in Utah also feel cheated out of a House seat, too, and they’ve been feeling that way ever since the 2000 census.  Why?  Because Utah, which has only three representatives, missed the cutoff for a fourth seat by about eight hundred people.  They claimed that the Census failed to count Mormon missionaries who were out of the country at the time; they also took issue with a statistical method the Census uses.  This bothered them enough to take their case to the Supreme Court, where they lost.  (North Carolina has the seat Utah wanted.)  This part of the story seems to be missing from the current coverage, and it explains why the Beehive State’s so into this idea.

Fast forward to today.  Somebody in Washington (or maybe it was Utah — I’m not sure) got the admittedly savvy idea that if we added one seat for D.C., which would probably go Democrat, we could add one seat for Utah, which would probably go Republican, and keep the balance we have.  Everybody wins — Utah’s pacified and Washington’s seat is still as worthless as it is today since it’ll always get canceled out!  What a great compromise.  (Never mind that it is unconstitutional to add a seats for D.C. — more on that later.)

I read in the Post, however, that yesterday House Republicans attached an amendment to this bill.  Now, if the bill passes, the amendment repeals D.C.’s very strict gun laws.  This is an even more savvy political move than the original idea, in my view.  If liberal Democrats vote for it, hoping to give D.C. its representation, they repeal its gun control laws.  Some liberals will now vote against the bill because they’d rather keep the gun control.  Realizing this, the Democratic leadership stalled the bill.  Now Republicans can say they refused to support the constitutional right to arms.

All this manuevering puts me in the mind of my law review article (which I certainly hope can be described as “forthcoming” someday).  I wrote on legislative silliness, and one case in point was LBJ’s 1956 manuevering to get senators from the Pacific Northwest to support an amendment that weakened the civil rights bill so that the South would accept the bill.  In exchange for that support, he promised the Northwest his support for a series of federal dams — which actually passed the Senate.  The cunning part of this plan was, Johnson’s dam support was worthless because the House never passed the dam bill.  The President would probably have vetoed it anyway.  It cost nothing to keep his end of the deal, and in exchange, the Northwest gave LBJ his greatest legislative victory.

Republicans have the opportunity to pull the same trick here.  Suppose the combined D.C. voting and gun-rights actually passes.  It will immediately be challenged by some Republican somewhere, and one of two things will happen.  One possibility is the courts will strike down the part of the bill giving D.C. the vote, because D.C.’s not a State and the Constitution gives representation only to States; Utah, however, will probably keep its representative because Congress can change the number of seats at any time.  The other possibility is the whole voting part of the bill will go out the window, leaving the gun control repeal on the books.  Either way, Republicans win.

I can’t believe Democrats are falling into this trap, except that they are giddy with the intoxication of their big November wins.

The most interesting part of this is why it’s such a big deal for Utah right now.  There is another census coming up in three years.  At that point, the whole Congressional deck is reshuffled.  It would be impossible to predict at this time which State will be in Utah’s position — being the very next in line for a seat, if only the House had room for one more.  The thing is, though, there will always be that one State that just didn’t make it.  And because of the way the math works, it’s essentially random (but it is always most likely to be California).  All this work now, just to get a short-term gain that Utah, with its high growth rate, will almost certainly have outright after 2010 anyway, seems a little late.  Where was this idea in 2000?

6 thoughts on “Congressional skullduggery”

  1. As a former resident of the District, my favorite solution to this quandary is to roll the citygina into Maryland or Virginia. That way there’s representation wherever you live. Set aside a small “federal quarter” downtown, and it’s done.

    Of course it won’t happen. Too many poor black folk in DC, whom Maryland and Virginia wouldn’t want to absorb. Sure, in theory these people could move to any state. But in reality, they are not in a position to do so. So this is a permanent disenfranchisement, which is different from the temporary annoyance faced by the Mormons.

    In the Electoral College, three electors for DC’s non-existent two senators and its one representative (who should at least have voting power, since she’s there) exist. So two of the electors stand in for figments of the imagination; this is a deeply odd system.

    Democrats champion the DC voting rights cause because it would help them; nothing more noble than that. But even so, it is embarrassing that the capital of what claims to be the world’s greatest democracy is not actually democratic.

  2. Sorry for that odd typo–”citygina” should just be “city!” Pretty strange, but not quite as strange as the electors who represent DC’s non-existent Senators.

  3. I knew I would be able to provoke some of my right honorable gentlemen friends into dissenting, although I have to say I was hoping for more fiery language. I didn’t intend to get into the actual merits of granting Congressional representation to the federal capital, although I believe there are good arguments for not doing so. Rather, I wanted to comment on the amusing machinations of those who are using Washington’s non-State state for their own purposes.

    I couldn’t resist making two counter-comments, however. First, there is no rule that the number of electoral votes assigned to a State or to the District is due to the number of federal legislators assigned to the State or to the District. (In fact, by law, the District can never have more representatives than the emptiest State.)  Therefore there are no “figment” Senators. Moreover, the District got its presidential electors the hard and honest way: by amending the Constitution through the 23rd Amendment. There is nothing to say that such an amendment couldn’t pass again, this time granting representation in the House and/or Senate.

    Second, I was amused by the statement that Washington, which is the capital of the world’s greatest democracy, “is not actually democratic.” This is of course true. But it’s because of the terrible consequences of one-party rule brought on by the residents of the District themselves, who have voted for themselves in election after election the most corrupt, inept, and lavishly wasteful municipal government in the nation. The people of D.C. have not yet figured out that the wages of one-party rule is tyranny.

  4. At the municipal level, say what you want about DC politics. Here I’m speaking about the lack of meaningful federal representation for people in the District.

    Again, I say the solution is to let the surrounding states absorb the District’s population. This way such “amusing” machinations as messing with gun laws could not happen.

  5. One more point, and I’m done.

    OK, it’s not a rule that the number of electors equals the number of federal representatives. It certainly is a strong custom, which is why the number of electors for the 50 states is always 535. In a practical sense, DC’s 3 presidential electors represent 2.5 figments (2 senators and .5 representative, since Eleanor Holmes Norton cannot vote on the floor.)

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