Senate Passes DC Voting Rights Bill

Senate Passes DC Voting Rights Bill

By Kyle Trygstad - February 27, 2009

After decades of trying, the District of Columbia is one step closer to receiving full-voting representation in the House of Representatives. With 61 yea votes, the Senate gave final approval yesterday to the D.C. Voting Rights Act of 2009, and House Democratic leadership has indicated it plans to take up the bill by the middle of next week.

The most pivotal moment in the bill's outcome this year came Tuesday when the Senate voted 62-34 in a procedural move to consider the bill, which would permanently increase the number of members in the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 -- adding a new congressional district in D.C. and Utah. That vote moved the legislation beyond its end point in the previous session of Congress, when it fell three votes shy of the 60 votes needed for Senate consideration.

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"I feel like doing something very un-senatorial, which is to simply say: Yes!" Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said, with a pump of the fist, at a press conference following yesterday's vote. "The truth is, this is a victory for America because this vote today is a significant step forward in closing the gap that exists between the ideals on which this country was founded and the reality as experienced by the 600,000 people that happen to live in our nation's capital."

The District gained the right to vote in presidential elections in 1961 with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment, which granted D.C. the same number of electors as the least populous state. Since 1971, the District has had a delegate to the House of Representatives, one who can debate, introduce bills and vote in committee, but has no voting authority when bills come to the House floor. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), whom her colleagues refer to as "Congresswoman," has represented D.C. since being elected in 1990.

Without a court challenge -- which many believe is unavoidable, though it's unclear who will bring forth a lawsuit -- the law would become effective for the next congressional elections in 2010. D.C. would be granted one House district (a number that by law would not be allowed to increase), though it would not be treated as a state for the purposes of representation in the Senate. Depending on the outcome of the 2010 Census and reapportionment, Utah -- which was next in line to gain a House district following the 2000 Census -- theoretically could lose its new seat.

The debate on the Senate floor centered primarily on whether it's constitutional for Congress to give voting representation to a non-state. Opinions on the issue vary, especially regarding the fact that D.C. is not a state. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution was recited countless times on the Senate floor by Republican opponents, and opponents in the House will likely do the same next week as well. It states: "The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states."

Proponents, however, note that the District is treated as a state in certain situations, such as with regard to interstate commerce, federal taxation and presidential elections.

"I want to remind my colleagues that while political winds may change, the plain text of the Constitution does not change. The Constitution says that only states may have representation," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) stated Wednesday on the Senate floor.

While Sessions centered his argument on the Constitution, he indicated other gripes as well. Sessions noted the number of jobs the federal government offers in the nation's capital and said he wished those jobs existed in Birmingham -- though he failed to mention that many of these jobs are filled by residents of Maryland and Virginia.

"I'm just saying, I don't believe the District of Columbia is being abused," he said. "In fact they're doing pretty well with taxpayers' money all-in-all."

Federal taxes is an issue many proponents of the bill cite, including on the District's widely-known license plates, which read: "Taxation Without Representation." Despite having a population greater than only Wyoming, D.C. pays more in federal income taxes than any of the seven states that have one House member and a population of less than 1 million people, according to The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group.

Opponents, however, note that the District in turn gets more federal dollars back per dollar paid in federal income taxes than any state -- though many of those dollars go to federal buildings.

While some opponents of the bill have also argued that the District is represented by all members of Congress -- 535, for now -- others submit that the nearly 600,000 American citizens living in D.C. do deserve their own voice in the law-making body. These opponents feel, however, that it must be done through a constitutional amendment -- not legislatively.

Despite voting against a similar bill in 2007, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted Tuesday to consider it, though she quickly indicated she did so only to allow debate -- not because she's in favor of it. From the Senate floor Wednesday, Murkowski said she voted "to allow this issue that is so important to some 600,000 people, that we give them this debate. I represent a state of just a little over 600,000. I can only imagine."

Murkowski said she planned to introduce a constitutional amendment -- separate from the current bill --that would give D.C. residents representation in Congress. Such a move has been done more than 150 times since the late 1880s, according to the Congressional Research Service. In 1978, the House and Senate approved an amendment, but only 16 states voted to ratify it -- 22 less than the three-fourths needed.

In a clear sign of how decisive the debate was, two allies in the 2008 presidential campaign were pitted squarely against each other. Lieberman was outspoken in his support for John McCain in 2008, though since coming back to Congress the two have been on opposite sides of major legislation, including the economic stimulus package.

McCain has been an ardent opponent of giving D.C. a full-voting House member, and he raised a point of order Wednesday questioning the bill's constitutionality. Lieberman replied that constitutionality was ultimately the Supreme Court's decision, and McCain's point of order was not agreed to by the Senate.

Lieberman spokesperson Leslie Phillips maintains that "there is no rift" between the two. "The two Senators are close friends who happen to disagree on providing voting rights to the citizens of the District of Columbia," Phillips told RealClearPolitics.

Along with McCain's constitutional point of order, Senate opponents also introduced myriad amendments to the bill. These amendments ranged from prohibiting the Fairness Doctrine, giving non-federal land within the District's borders back to Maryland, and what Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) titled the "Second Amendment Enforcement Act," which would legalize firearms in the District.

Shortly before the final vote took place yesterday afternoon, Lieberman made one final pitch to those who feel the bill is unconstitutional. He noted one provision within the legislation that calls for expedited judicial review.

"No one knowingly votes for something they think is unconstitutional," said Lieberman. "And yet there are so many times here where we've got to acknowledge as powerful as this great deliberative body may be we're not the ultimate arbiter of constitutionality. That privilege, power was given to the judicial branch of our government."

The Senate vote was only the first step in the bill moving through the legislative process. The House, which easily passed similar legislation in 2007, will likely follow the Senate in approving its version of the bill by the end of next week. A House and Senate conference will then be called to hash out any differences before a final bill is voted on by both chambers. Should that happen, President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

In Pictures: Which Small State Pays the Highest Taxes?

In Pictures: Which States Pay the Most for Their Representation?

Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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