The Senate is currently considering legislation that would give the District of Columbia a voting member in the House of Representatives. The legislation is patently unconstitutional, which should end the debate at the outset. But it is important to note that it is unconstitutional not simply because it was written that way in a musty old 18th Century document. In this instance, the Constitution’s text is not an anachronism, something well suited for the late 18th Century but no longer applicable in contemporary times. The Founders certainly knew that the Constitution would not allow D.C. to have a voting representative in Congress, and they foresaw that the city would contain hundreds of thousands of residents. Pierre L’Enfant, who designed the city in the 1790s under George Washington’s direction, anticipated that the city would grow to 800,000 people (more than today’s population, in fact).
In our Founders’ view, the District was intended to be a unique federal enclave with a special constitutional status. While they insisted that government operate by the consent of the governed, meaning that those who hold actual political power must be chosen directly or indirectly by the people, they also accepted the fact that the federal city would not have voting representation in Congress. They believed that Congress would exercise collective responsibility for promoting the federal city’s interests. History has vindicated this view.
So, what should be done? One possibility that ought to be considered seriously is exempting residents of the District of Columbia from federal income tax burden. After all, if the problem is “no taxation without representation,” as many activists claim, this would appear to be a viable remedy. This option is fully constitutional, has prior precedents, and would preserve the District’s unique constitutional status.