WASHINGTON – The House passed legislation granting D.C. a voting congressional seat, and today the Senate votes for cloture on its version, which would grant Utah a fourth House seat. But let’s face it: Even if Democrats and Republicans believe their talking points, this is politics. Democrats are looking for another strong Democratic seat, and the District is one of the bluest pieces of U.S. geography.
In 2000, 86 percent of D.C. residents voted for Al Gore; in 2004, 90 percent voted for John Kerry. Despite denials from Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and nonvoting D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, once Congress concedes that D.C. deserves a House seat, a push will be made for two Senate seats.
It follows as a matter of logic. If it is a “civil right” to vote for a congressional member, and D.C. is to be treated like a state, how dare Congress deny the District the right to vote for two senators as well? Norton’s Web site openly declares her strategy to avoid a filibuster by stressing “the racial roots” of D.C.’s lack of representation. Never mind that whites in the District have never had congressional representation either, and never mind that when the Constitution was written, most blacks, even in actual states, could not vote.
Making a pre-emptive insinuation of racism, Norton recently said, “The only way to stop it now is for opponents to reach back to the old and much discredited Senate practice of filibustering voting rights and civil rights bills.”
For their part, Republicans don’t want a Democratic House seat. And they certainly don’t want two more Democratic senators. It would set a precedent for territories and more. Thus, President Bush has threatened a veto.
But now that we have pacified the cynics, myself included, are there any principles involved here? Republicans legitimately point to not one but (a White House friend reminds me) many places in the Constitution to support their contention. In fact, a recent Yale Law Journal article by American Enterprise Institute’s John C. Fortier found no less than seven constitutional passages implying that congressional representation is limited to states. But Democrats are standing firm on the license plate motto our founders envisioned: “No taxation without representation.”
The hard thing for conservatives like me is that we are constitutionalists and idealists. We revere the text, and taxation without voting rights is antithetical to our principles. Can there be conciliation without compromising principle?
There are at least two acceptable resolutions:
One, D.C. residents can quit whining and work hard to persuade their fellow citizens to pass a 28th Amendment establishing a voting congressional seat for D.C.
Or two, Congress could halt federal taxation of the District.
I vote (sorry) for the latter. But would either party go for it?
Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, an organization pushing for District representation, told me he has heard some D.C. residents say they would trade an embargo on taxation for a congressional seat. But Zherka views this as “pessimistic.” He believes this view largely flows from those who, unlike himself, have lost hope of congressional representation.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told me that “No taxation without representation is sound policy.” Norquist thinks ending District taxation could provide a profound test for supply-side economics, “since according to the liberals,” cessation of taxation “would not affect anyone’s behavior.” Supply-siders have long maintained that taxation influences savings, investment and entrepreneurship. So halting District taxes would offer an empirical trial of these ideas.
District residents may forgo some federal funds, but they “rank second in per-capita income taxes paid to support our government,” according to Hatch and Norton. At the same time, D.C. would undoubtedly attract wealthy residents, thus increasing the tax base for D.C.’s income and sales taxes substantially. Many folks living across the Potomac because of the lower income tax would return.
And thus former Mayor Anthony Williams’ vision of enlarging the District’s population by 100,000 residents might be fulfilled through a step he never imagined.
U.S. territories already resolve the conflict this way. Puerto Rico, for instance, does not have voting representation in the House. But neither does it pay federal taxes. And when given the choice to become a state, Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood largely because they prefer federal tax exemption.
Something tells me D.C. residents might also see this as an amicable compromise, and not at the expense of our principles — but because of them.
Logan Gage is a policy analyst at the Discovery Institute.