I have never been a fan of the plan to give Utah a fourth seat in the House of Representatives in exchange for giving Washington, D.C. an actual voting seat in the House. This issue has reared its head before, sometimes with support from Utah’s politicians, and it’s back once again per this Washington Post article (hat tip: Utah Policy Daily).
Here’s the deal. The Constitution (Article I, Section 2) requires seats in the House of Representatives to be apportioned according to population. The apportionment is reallocated every 10 years according to census numbers. The number of seats fluctuated until the Apportionment Act of 1911 set the total number of seats at 435. (This number was temporarily changed to 437 from 1959-1963.)
This means that every time we get new census numbers some readjustment takes place, with some states losing seats and some states gaining seats, depending on population shifts. Given that understanding, it is easy to see why census methodology is such a hot topic in Congress. States stand to lose or gain seats depending on methods used.
Following the 2000 Census, Utah was hoping to pick up a fourth seat in the House, but North Carolina edged Utah out by 856 people. Utah filed suit, claiming that the Census Bureau’s numbers were unfair, citing the fact that it counted North Carolina’s military members serving abroad while failing to count Mormon missionaries temporarily living outside of Utah. When that suit failed, Utah filed a second suit claiming that census takers in North Carolina had erroneously used statistical sampling methods. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Utah (see here).
Utah has had a craw in its jaw about its lost congressional seat ever since the whole 2000 Census imbroglio. Moreover, others in Congress have openly recognized the perception of injustice. It just seems so frightfully unfair to come so close, but then to fail due to a close call by the referees. But just as victimology ill suits anybody—indeed it is a nasty self-destructive attitude—it is a poor fit for Utahns, who tend to pride themselves on hardiness and self-sufficiency.
On the other side of the coin, the Constitution allows for representatives to be elected to Congress “by the People of the several States…” You get that? Only states. But why should U.S. citizens in Washington, D.C. and in the various U.S. territories be denied representation in Congress by accident of where they live? How incredibly unfair is that?
Well, the answer is that they do get to elect representatives, because Congress long ago recognized this disparity. But the problem is that those representatives have no real voting power. But this injustice has largely been a problem only for Democrats, because the district and the territories always vote for Democrats, so Republicans haven’t been very sympathetic. Let’s face it; national politics is all about power, so why would anyone in Washington, D.C. volunteer to relinquish power?
When Utah lost its bid for a fourth House seat, the Republicans felt the sting, because Utah is fairly reliable at sending Republicans to Congress, and when it doesn’t, it sends Democrats that vote like Republicans. So a fourth seat for Utah would most likely have meant an additional Republican seat.
With both sides sensing injustice, the time seemed right for a compromise. Here’s the plan: expand the number of seats in the House to 437 permanently, let Utah get its fourth seat, and let D.C. have its own actual voting member instead of a mere figurehead. Now doesn’t that sound like a fair plan? It intends to create fairness, but the deal is riddled with problems.
First, the plan is unconstitutional. The Constitution allows only states to have real voting representatives in Congress. It seems unfair to districts and territories, but it’s the law. No doubt the constitutionality of the seat deal would ultimately be challenged. Republicans might feel somewhat secure about this, because Utah would probably keep its seat while Washington, D.C. probably wouldn’t.
Past efforts to circumvent the Constitution have proven to carry unfortunate consequences. If our Constitution is unfair, let’s amend it through the appropriate avenues. Otherwise, let’s live with it. If the states-only provision is so horribly unfair, why has no serious effort been mounted to amend the Constitution to fix it?
My second problem with the deal is that it would require Utah’s fourth seat to be a statewide position rather than being assigned to a geographic division of Utah. Do we really want the equivalent of a third senator? Splitting Utah into four districts would allow citizens to have better representation. It would allow representatives to better focus on the needs of their individual districts. That is the purpose of the House. Do we want one representative that has overlapping representative responsibilities with three others?
We elect senators by statewide election because they are meant to represent the interests of the state equally with the other 49 states. Senators have to cover far more constituents than House members, so they have to diffuse their efforts and message. Doing this in both the House and the Senate partially defeats the purposes of the Founders to allow for more personal representation as well as representation of the state as a whole. I’m not going to get into the issue of gerrymandering districts here. That will have to wait for another day.
My third problem with the deal is that it’s a permanent fix to a temporary problem. In 2010 there will be another census. No one doubts that Utah will accordingly get its fourth House seat in the 2012 election, just six years from now. And Utah will then get to determine for itself how it should be represented, rather than having this determined by some cabal back east.
Yet another problem with the deal is that it would help only Washington, D.C., and it would only do a halfway job of that. Why does the District merit representation in the House, but not in the Senate? Why do Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and other territories not merit similar representation? Once again, if this is a flaw in our Constitution, let’s fix it the right way rather than doing something that in reality is only symbolic.
The Republicans in Congress that are pushing the plan have no clear sense of whether it will ultimately succeed. Unlike past efforts, House leadership has not come out in open opposition to it. I seriously hope that the bill fails and that it fails so miserably that no one will dare bring it up again. I wish this, not because I believe that some citizens are unworthy of congressional representation, but because I think the deal would actually be a raw deal for them, for Utah, and for the country.
Many still think Utah got the short end of the stick in 2000 despite the fact that the law says justice was served. OK, so write it up in the history books and move on. Utah should quit wallowing in victim status. Many think that Washington, D.C. has long had a rotten deal. OK, so quit with the whining already. Pull up your bootstraps and do what it takes to really fix the problem. The citizens of the District and of the nation will be better off for it.