D.C. Voting Rights Dilemma

Endorsing a bill of dubious constitutionality, The Washington Post urges the Senate to join the House in passing a bill that would give Washington, D.C. a seat in the House. But the Constitution only gives “states” the right to have representatives in the House, and the District of Columbia is not a state.

More importantly, it is a debatable case purely on grounds of fairness.  Washington, D.C. has a smaller population than the typical House district.  Its half-million citizens are far less numerous than Montana, whose 900,000 residents enjoy only one House seat.  (D.C. also has fewer voters than all 50 states, and fewer residents than 49 of the 50 states). 

Moreover, Washington, D.C. is already overrepresented in the Electoral College, where it has 0.6 percent of the votes, despite having less than 0.2 percent of the nation’s population.

Underpopulated states are overrepresented in the Electoral College, too.  And states like Vermont and Wyoming get the same number of Senators (two) as big states like California and Texas, despite having only a tiny fraction of their population.  But the Constitution expressly forbids any attempt to change that inequity through constitutional amendment, barring any state from being deprived of its “equal” representation in the Senate, even if its population is anything but equal to other states.

What’s mandated by the Constitution isn’t always fair.

Voters in the District already enjoy far more self-determination than residents of other urban areas — and that has economically harmed, rather than helped the District by leading to excessive regulation and lawsuits. 

Cities in Virginia, which are subject to state legislative checks and balances, are barred by Virginia’s Dillon Rule from regulating without state legislative approval.  Thus, they cannot require (as the District has) that businesses hire felons, or set aside basic standard that are alleged to have a “disparate impact” on some group.  (That an employee’s conduct or lack of skills imposes increased costs on an employer is expressly ruled out as a defense to a “disparate impact” lawsuit under the D.C. Human Rights Act.)

By contrast, Washington, D.C. ordinances regulating business are not subject to state government oversight, and are seldom second-guessed by Congress. 

Partly as a result of that, there has been a steady migration of businesses and trade associations from the heavily-regulated District of Columbia to the Virginia municipalities of Alexandria and Arlington, which have less regulation, and fewer lawsuits.