A Vote the District Deserves

By Orrin G. Hatch, Joe Lieberman, Tom Davis and Eleanor Holmes Norton
Published September 12th 2007

The four of us serve in different houses of Congress and are members of different parties. We do not always share political goals or co-sponsor the same legislation. We have, however, worked hard on a historic bill to ensure that the nearly 600,000 Americans in the District of Columbia and the residents of Utah are properly represented in Congress.

Under our legislation, the District would get a House vote for the first time in 206 years, and Utah would get the seat it was denied because of counting irregularities in the 2000 Census. We are proud that ours is a bipartisan bill, which passed the House in April and now has clear majority support from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

In spite of this Senate majority, we are now seeking 60 votes to avoid a filibuster. Filibusters of equal-rights bills have long been discredited by history. Democrats were wrong to filibuster voting rights bills in the 1960s, and Republicans would be wrong to filibuster our voting rights bill today. A Post poll earlier this year showed that 61 percent of adult Americans support a House vote for the District. This is not surprising, since District residents have fought in every American war and rank second in per capita income taxes paid to support our government.

The D.C. Voting Rights Act is aptly seen as the Voting Rights Act of 2007. Like last year's reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, our bill would give a House vote to a majority-African American jurisdiction. But, while last year's bill sought to remedy state voting rights violations, Congress alone has always had jurisdiction over civil rights for the residents of our capital. Congress abolished slavery in the District nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation; segregated public accommodations and schools until the Brown decision in 1954; and withheld authority for the District to govern itself until 1974. To its credit, Congress has remedied these and other injustices throughout our history under its constitutional authority over "all matters whatsoever" in the District. This power, which the Supreme Court has said is "full and unlimited," also gives Congress the power to grant the District voting rights in the House.

Critics who warn of the specter of Senate representation for the District have not read this bill. It grants the District only a House seat and states that this bill may not be used "for purposes of representation in the United States Senate." Critics have also raised the constitutional concern that the District is not a state. Article I of the Constitution says that the House of Representatives shall be composed of members elected by the people of "the several states."

However, Georgetown law professor Viet Dinh, President Bush's assistant attorney general for constitutional issues in his first term, detailed the many ways the Supreme Court has approved congressional action equating the District to a state for constitutional purposes. Whether "commerce among the states," federal lawsuits between "citizens of different states," "direct taxes . . . apportioned among the several states" and more, the court has ruled that the word "states" in various constitutional provisions includes our capital city.

We believe that the Framers, who gave Congress these powers, did not intend to deny Congress the right to grant the vote to the District as well.

We do not believe that the nation's Founders, fresh from fighting a war for representation, would have denied representation to the residents of the new capital they established. Some of these residents of Maryland and Virginia were undoubtedly veterans of the Revolutionary War, and residents of both states had voting representation. When accepting the land for the District, the First Congress honored a covenant to these first residents to observe existing laws of the donor states. They pledged that, when jurisdiction passed to Congress, it would "by law provide" for preserving the residents' rights. It is time to fulfill that promise by passing our historic bill.

Orrin G. Hatch is a Republican senator from Utah. Joe Lieberman is an independent senator from Connecticut. Tom Davis is a Republican representative from Virginia. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, is the District's nonvoting delegate to Congress.