FULL, VOTING REPRESENTATION IN CONGRESS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
An insert to the June 1999 DC Voter by the League of Women Voters
The Constitution gives the U. S. Congress power over the District of Columbia, per
Article I, Section 8, clause 17 to "exercise exclusive legislation in all Cases
whatsoever over such capital district...as may... become the seat of the Government of the
United States" as well as enclaves it might acquire.
Each American citizen is represented in Congress by one person in the House of
Representatives and two Senators except citizens of the nation's capital (and those
living in territories, where other factors operate).
- D.C. was part of the original colonies; its citizens did vote in Congress before the
capital was moved to D.C.; D.C. citizens are inheritors of the Constitutional claim for
voting rights, equal treatment under the law, and other principles.
- Americans living in the nation's capital -- Americans who pay federal taxes and can be
called to war -- should be treated as other Americans.
- According to the "Federalist Papers," the lack of attention in the
Constitution to D.C.'s situation reflects an oversight.
- In the last official (1990) census, the District's population (over 600,000) was greater
than that of several states (Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont).
While the Constitution speaks of representation in Congress in terms of
"states," the District is in fact treated as if it were a state for over 500
purposes, including constitutional ones as affirmed by the Supreme Court, e.g.:
- Article I, Section 8: Congress regulates business across D.C. borders and levies taxes;
- Article IV: requires full faith and credit be given to public acts of every other state
and guarantees privileges and immunities of citizenship and a republican form of
- Bill of Rights applies to the District, e.g., Sixth Amendment, provides right to trial
Each chamber in Congress has special responsibilities. Representation is not effective,
nor complete if not in both chambers. For example:
- Only the House has the power to initiate spending bills.
- Only the Senate votes on treaties and Presidential nominees.
- Conference committees, reflecting differing views of each chamber, are pivotal to the
outcome of legislation.
Among world democracies, notably those where power is divided between the national
government and the states, only the U. S. denies voting representation in the national
legislature by citizens of the national capital.
The District's budget is now financed by locally raised revenues. (See separate "Questions & Answers" package; it elaborates on
D.C. citizens are denied voting representation in that legislative body which:
- spends their taxes and runs their lives on a national level,
- serves as a de facto state legislature, and
- even has control over locally raised funds and legislation.
- Non-D.C. residents in effect can have more control over the District's local affairs
than D.C. residents themselves do.
Twenty Questions & Answers
VOTING REPRESENTATION IN CONGRESS FOR AMERICAN CITIZENS LIVING IN THE NATION'S CAPITAL,
THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
1. Q. What is the problem?
A. Over one-half million American citizens have no voting voice in the U. S. Congress, the
body which governs them, but then only because they live in the nation's capital.
2. What's new?
A. Based on the evolution of constitutional law, legal experts have concluded that the U.
S. Congress, under its own authority pursuant to the Constitution, has the power to
provide a remedy for the District's lack of voting representation. This is the subject a
1998 lawsuit filed in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia (civil Action
No. 98-CV-2187-LFO; Clifford Alexander et. al, Plaintiffs, v. William M. Daley, as
Secretary of Commerce et al.)
3 Q. What does the U. S. Constitution say about the District of Columbia? About the
Congress in relation to the District?
A. Article I, Section 8, clause 17 gives the Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not
exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of
Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like
Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in
which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and
other needful Buildings;"
The fact that Congress has exclusive power over the District makes it all the more
important that District citizens be represented in Congress.
4. Are there other federal enclaves acquired under clause 17 where residents of the
federal enclave can vote for representation in the U. S. Congress?
A. Yes. A notable example concerns the reservation of the National Institutes of Health,
located outside Washington, D.C., in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. These citizens are like
millions of others living on federal enclaves who vote in the jurisdictions from which
their enclaves were created. This reflects the force of the "equal protection"
provisions of the Constitution (14th Amendment).
5. Q. Would voting representation for the District in Congress be inconsistent with the
A. Constitutional experts have testified that there is no constitutional barrier to
representation in both Senate and House for D.C. (See also Q&A 8).
6. Q. So U. S. citizens residing in the District of Columbia have no voting
representation in Congress. Isn't this what the Founding Fathers intended?
No. It was an oversight. The federal district was a new concept when the Constitution was
written, its site undecided. The Founding Fathers did not envision a major city with a
large permanent population. In treating the new district concept, James Madison writing in
the "Federalist Papers, No. 43" said: "The inhabitants of the District will
find sufficient inducements of interest to become willing parties of the cession; as they
will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority
In the early days, when the capital was moved in 1800 from Philadelphia to the new
District of Columbia, population was far below the 30,000 specified in relation to
establishment of Congressional districts. From 1790 to 1800 people living in the territory
of the District continued to vote in national elections in Maryland or Virginia. Further,
at the outset the right to vote was highly limited. It has been enlarged such that the
principle "one person, one vote" is now central to our system of laws.
7. Q. Was the seat of the federal government created to protect federal interests?
Wouldn't D.C. representation in Congress threaten the federal interest?
A. This is a "red herring." The Continental Congress wanted to create a federal
district so that no one state could interpose its jurisdiction between the national
government and the seat of that government. This desire arose from experience when the
Congress was meeting in Philadelphia and feared attack from disgruntled unpaid soldiers
but could not compel the state of Pennsylvania to protect it.
Remember, there was great concern about safety and defense after the Revolutionary War.
Protecting the young government had high priority. However, the population in the District
was very small at the outset. It did not constitute a practical threat and, today, the
federal government is well able to defend itself. Moreover, as American citizens, D. C.
citizens have the same concern with the full range of federal interests as any other
citizens, e.g. health care and foreign policy. Additionally, there are many important
federal operations in the states which could be viewed as being equally important as
operations in the District. The Pentagon in Virginia is but one example. Finally, the
parallel should be tested. There is no more inherent conflict between federal interests
and those living in the nation's capital than there is between residents of state capitals
and respective state governments.
8. Q. The Constitution provides for congressional representation from states. The
District of Columbia is not a state. Why should it have Congressional representation as if
it were a state?
A. The District is responsible for conducting state-level functions in addition to classic
local functions (see Q&A 13).
More importantly, the District is treated as if it were a state for over 500 purposes,
including constitutional ones as affirmed by the Supreme Court. For example:
- Article I, Section 8: Congress regulates business across District borders and levies
- Article IV: requires that full faith and credit be given to public acts of every other
state and guarantees privileges and immunities of citizenship as well as a republican form
- Bill of Rights Applies in the District, e.g. Sixth Amendment; provides right to trial by
Under the earlier-mentioned Alexander v. Daley lawsuit, plaintiffs addressed the
statist argument from various perspectives. A basic argument is made:
- Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides: "The House of Representatives
shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several
States..." At that time no federal seat of government had been defined; it was a
construct. The entities with which drafters were familiar were states and thus logical to
mention. But it is the "people'' who chose.
- Before amendment, Article I, Section 3 addressed composition of the Senate in terms of
'two Senators from each State chose by the Legislature thereof." However, the
Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution ( 1913) provided for election of Senators by
direct popular vote: "The Senate ... shall be composed of two Senators from each
State, elected by the people thereof..."
The plaintiffs in Alexander v. Daley argue that the "people" are the same
people for the purposes of electing both Senators and Representatives. This is reinforced
by the importance of the modern principle of "one person, one vote."
9. Q. The District has a non-voting Delegate in the House of Representatives. Isn't
A. No. The Delegate has no vote, thus no bargaining power which makes representation truly
credible. Moreover, D.C. has no representation in the Senate. Each chamber in Congress has
special responsibilities. Representation is not effective, nor complete, if not in both
chambers. For example, only the Senate votes on treaties and Presidential nominees. Only
the House of Representatives has the power to initiate spending bills. Conference
committees, reflecting differing views of each chamber, are pivotal to the final outcome
10. Q. If District citizens are allowed to have voting representation, won't this
dilute the representation of the states?
A. The original 13 states -- of which the District was a part -- shared representation
with new states 37 times. Two senators for the District would not impinge on the equal
treatment of any state vis-a- vis the other states. Any reapportionment for the House of
Representatives would follow traditional requirements and accord with results of the
11. Q. Would D.C. residents gain undue influence in Congress because they live so
A. This has no practical consequence in and of itself. In fact the U. S. Capitol is
located geographically closer to (a part of ) Maryland than it is to some District
neighborhoods. Access and influence in Congress is not dependent purely on where one
lives, especially in modern times of communication and travel.
12. Q. If D.C. residents want congressional representation, then why don't they move
A. To those born in the District, such suggestion is an affront to their birthright.
Others may not be able to afford to move even if they should so desire. No one elsewhere
in the country has to move to vote as Americans. Even American citizens residing outside
the country can retain voting rights for Congress. On a practical level, as the core
for the metropolitan region, the District's economic health is important to the economic
health of the metropolitan region. Encouraging residents to leave, and thus reduce the
District's revenue base, would be counter-productive.
13. Q. Do D.C. citizens pay federal taxes, including income taxes? Doesn't the federal
government totally finance the District?
A. The District pays a heavy total federal tax burden. For example, according to the
latest official IRS data, on an annual basis District residents paid over $ 1.8 billion in
federal individual income taxes alone.
The federal government does not generally finance the District. In fact, the District's
budget is now financed by locally raised revenues. (D.C. is eligible for various federal
grants, like other jurisdictions. ) Bear in mind that, and unlike other jurisdictions, the
District's local budget goes through the entire federal budget process regardless
of sources of revenues. This process includes potential risk of D.C. government shutdown
should the federal not act on relevant appropriation authority.
In 1997, legislation provided for federal assumption of selected state-level
responsibilities and a greater percentage of medicaid, as well as certain pension
liability (some of which had improperly been placed on the District). At the same time the
legislation eliminated provision for an annual Federal Payment, a provision first
established in 1874. The Payment had been at the annual level of about $660 million.
Some argue that the loss of the Payment is offset by the federal government's assumption
of responsibilities under the 1997 legislation. This clouds understanding of the financial
net benefit to the District, because calculations of the off-set include responsibilities
of the federal government in any event. (Certain pension problems imposed on the District
were created by federal non-action; the federal government also took over certain assets
which the District had amassed. As to Medicaid, the federal share increased, more in line
with other jurisdictions and appropriate to a fully urban jurisdiction like the District.
For FY1998, Congress and the Administration authorized a transitional one-time federal
"contribution" of $190 million. Any future such contribution(s) would be subject
to the annual budget process. In fact none was provided for with respect to FYl999. Bear
in mind that the Federal Payment owed the District was based on broader elements than a
so-called PILOT - - payment in lieu of taxes, with which states may be familiar. In
addition to requiring D.C. services and thus a PILOT, Congress denied the District access
to certain sources of revenues (e.g. reciprocal income tax with neighboring states).
Moreover, the services required by the federal government are not only ordinary ones like
fire protection Federal services are required reflecting the status of a national capital,
e.g., support for national celebrations and diplomatic presence.
Both the federal restrictions and federal need for special services continue, not
withstanding the cancellation of the Federal Payment and lack of a predictable
contribution of any kind.
14. Q. If D.C. gets voting representation in Congress, what about the U. S.
A. The two cases are uniquely different. District citizens pay over $1.8 billion in
federal individual income taxes. Residents of the territories (Guam, American Samoa, the
Virgin Island, and Puerto Rico) pay zero. Moreover, the District's claim stands on its own
because it was part of the original 13 states; the people of the District are inheritors.
15. Q. In other countries, are the citizens of the capital cities allowed to vote for
A. Yes. Among world democracies, particularly those with a federal system, the United
States stands out uniquely in denying residents of the national capital voting
representation in the national legislature.
16. Q. Has the U. S. joined any international agreements which address representation
in national governments?
A. Yes. The U.S. subscribed to the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights, and it is a party
to the subsequent International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Among other
things, these instruments recognize the right of citizens to take part in the government
of one's country through freely chosen representatives.
17. Q. Is racism the real reason D.C. has been denied voting representation?
A. That may be the view of some, since around the 1960's; but bear in mind that D.C. has
been denied its claim for the many, many years when the majority of the population was
18. Q. Does the lawsuit (mentioned in Q&A 2 ) seek a particular remedy?
A. No; it is open as to solution.. It does rely on the power which Congress currently
holds under Article I, Section 8, clause 17 to provide remedy, which thus could be by
simple legislation providing for D.C. voting representation as if it were a state. The
suit does, however, seek allowance for a period in which Congress may choose to act before
the Court would have to issue direction.
Basically, this lawsuit seeks recognition of a basic American principle, namely, citizens'
rights to elect representatives to the body which makes their laws, taxes them and can
call them to war. The Congress also serves in effect as the District's state legislature.
As noted under Q&A9, in pursuit of the fundamental right, representation in both
houses of Congress is called for.
19. Q. As a point of fact, isn't there another similar lawsuit? What is it about?
A. Yes. This suit (Adams et al. v. President Clinton et al. ) also seeks
voting representation in Congress but it relies on different legal theories and
relationship of the District to Congress. Generally speaking, its says that District
residents have a right to be a state or be part of a state (presumably retrocession to
Maryland). of the Constitutional provisions for equal protection of the law and the
guarantee of a republican form of government. The two cases have been consolidated for
consideration by the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
20. Q. As a point of information. what are the positions of "shadow"
Representative and Senators currently elected in the District of Columbia?
A. In the 1970's District citizens pursued voting representation in Congress through
amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Congress did pass the requisite legislation for
representation as if D. C. were a state but the amendment did not receive the required
state approvals by the specified deadline. D.C. citizens then turned to the statehood
avenue. Sending the "shadow" delegation to lobby Congress mirrors the approach
used by a number of former territories seeking statehood. Congress has not acted on
accepting any delegation from the District.
Prepared by: The League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia (from its materials
and drawing upon history from "A Simple Case of Democracy Denied," a booklet
prepared by the Office of former D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy)