D.C. Voting Rights Bill: A Raw Deal for Republicans

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brought legislation to the floor to address a recent calamity that befell the United States. No, I am not referring to the financial panic, the collapse of the housing bubble, Hurricane Katrina, or even the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The disaster that Reid sought to rectify was the election of a Republican majority to the House of Representatives in 1994 and the five subsequent elections.

The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 passed the Senate last Thursday by a vote of 61-37. The bill will add two seats to the House of Representatives. One will represent the District of Columbia and the other, at least initially, will represent a district in Utah. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican, co-sponsored the bill.

The bill is a raw deal for the GOP. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized last week, Utah's new seat will be up for grabs every 10 years when reapportionment rolls around, but D.C.'s seat will be forever. Moreover, Utah just missed out on another House seat by roughly 10,000 during the last reapportionment and would doubtless receive another seat after the 2010 census even without this bill. Understandably, Bob Bennett, Utah's junior Republican senator, saw no reason to jump the gun and voted against the bill.

The wiser political course for the entire Republican caucus would have been a filibuster. The GOP already controls the legislatures of most of the fastest growing states such as Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Utah. The next reapportionment will likely net six to 10 electoral votes for Republican states. The addition of another seat to the pool of congressional seats to be reapportioned could end up saving one of the seats slated to be eliminated from liberal New York or Massachusetts. Thus, what appears to be a one for one swap could actually net two seats for the Democrats: one for D.C., and another by saving a seat that would otherwise be eliminated, making it a wash for the GOP since Utah will get another seat after 2010 regardless of the fate of the D.C. measure.

Another problem with the bill is that it's unconstitutional. According to Article I of the Constitution, members of the House of Representatives must be chosen by the "People of the several States," and the District of Columbia is not a state. Democrats contend that the Constitution also gives Congress the power to exercise exclusive legislative control over the District of Columbia, which empowers them to grant it representation in the House. But this provision was intended to allow Congress to exercise police powers over the district, not distort the balance of representation among the states.