Pending legislation in the Senate to grant the District of
Columbia a representative in Congress would undermine the
District's unique constitutional status as a city under the
responsibility of the U.S. Congress.
The "District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009" (S.
160) would grant the District a voting representative in Congress.
Such legislation would undermine the Founders' vision of the
"federal town" as a unique enclave that would receive substantial
benefits from its appointment as the seat of government. Because
the seat of government would be located in the federal city, the
Founders anticipated that the interests of residents in the
District would be protected and advanced by the Congress as a
whole--a scenario that has proven to be substantially true
throughout American history.
In fact, by diminishing lawmakers' attention to the city, the
creation of a voting Representative for the District may actually
reduce the influence D.C. residents enjoy in Congress. Those who
value the true interests of the District should defend the existing
arrangement, which promotes the collective responsibility of
Congress to preserve the welfare of the federal city.
What Is Required by the Principles of
Consent and Representation?
The Founders believed that government derives its just powers
from the consent of the governed. This means, in practice, that the
best form of government is one where citizens are governed by
James Madison wrote in Federalist 39 that a republican
form of government is the only form that can be reconciled with
"the fundamental principles of the revolution," by which he meant,
of course, the Declaration of Independence's requirement that
government operate by the consent of the governed. Such a
government "derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the
great body of the people."
This does not mean, however, that citizens are entitled to being
governed exclusively by directly chosen representatives. "It
is sufficient for such a government," Madison continued,
"that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or
indirectly, by the people."
For instance, the Founders maintained that the judicial branch
is a representative branch, even though its members are only
indirectly appointed by the people, through the chief executive
(who is also appointed indirectly by the people). By this
reasoning, the District is already represented in the national
government to a certain extent, because it votes for President
through the Electoral College.
The Founders' View of the District as
It is widely believed that the Framers of the Constitution did
not fully anticipate the difficulty of a large number of people
residing in the District. It is alleged that they were either
unaware of, or simply did not care about, the potential defects of
the lack of voting representation in Congress for the District.
These claims, however, do not withstand close scrutiny. Jonathan
Turley, a progressive legal scholar at George Washington
University, has effectively rebutted the idea that the Founders did
not foresee this development. As he explains:
The absence of a vote in Congress was clearly understood as a
prominent characteristic of a federal district. Moreover, being a
resident of the new capital city was viewed as compensation for
this limitation. The fact that members would work, and generally
reside, in the District gave the city sufficient attention in
Early American leaders understood this argument well. Turley
cites Maryland Representative John Dennis, who maintained in 1801
that though District residents "might not be represented in the
national body, their voice would be heard."
Thus, while the Founders adhered strongly to the twin principles
of government by consent and representation when it came to the
federal city, they accepted this lack of formal representation
because the District's unique status.
Congress's Collective Responsibility
for the District
One of the arguments in favor of granting the District of
Columbia representation in the House is that without
representation, the interests of the District will be
This argument dates back to the debates over ratifying the
Constitution. During the New York debates, delegate Thomas
Tredwell, who later served in the U.S. Congress, declared that
"[t]he plan of the federal city ... departs from every principle of
freedom." He added that the lack of voting representation could
lead to "as complete a tyranny as can be found in the Eastern
world," because the residents would have no formal control over the
makers of public policy.
Tredwell's fear reflects the practical argument for government
by consent. Under strict application of this principle, governments
not based on consent through formal political representation can
potentially ignore the legitimate concerns of the governed more
But the Founders avoided this problem by placing the seat of
government in this special capital district, so that the
enlightened self-interest of the lawmakers who live and work there
for much of the year would advance the city's interests. The D.C.
Circuit Court made essentially this point in deciding United
States v. Cohen: "It is, in any event, fanciful to consider as
'politically powerless' a city whose residents include a high
proportion of the officers of all three branches of the federal
government, and their staffs."
The facts have demonstrated that such enlightened self-interest
is indeed at work, and, consequently, Tredwell's fear of
legislative tyranny over the District has not been realized. Even
though the District has never enjoyed a full voting Representative
in Congress, its interests have been protected and advanced as much
as, or more than, any other state or district in our national
Congress Advances the District's
From early in the District's history, Congress has acted to
develop the city, which had previously been largely undeveloped
forest and swampland. In the 19th century, lawmakers helped fund
development of Pierre L'Enfant's plan for the city. In the early
20th century, a congressional commission shepherded an extensive
beautification project that included the development of the
National Mall and the addition of new monuments to improve the
grandeur of the city.
Lawmakers continue to spare little expense on the nation's
capital. Congress today funds more than 20 percent of the city's
operating budget and provides substantial funding for local
amenities like the construction and operation of its subway system.
In fact, in 2005, the city received more than $5.50 in federal
spending for every dollar paid in federal taxes, more than double
what any state receives. Even on the budgetary level, the District
is given special treatment: The city receives federal funds under a
separate appropriations bill instead of the general appropriations
measure passed by Congress.
Additionally, the District is also set to receive a great deal
of extra funding from the recently passed American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act. In fact, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's
non-voting delegate to Congress, boasts on her website that the
city will receive greater financial support from this "stimulus"
legislation than seven states.
The rationale for the District's special treatment is that it is
the collective responsibility to promote the interests of the
federal city--a rationale that would be largely eliminated if the
District has its own Representative to look after its particular
It is unclear whether Congress would continue to provide such
generous federal funding to the District--as it currently does
through a special appropriations process--were the city to secure
representation in Congress. While the core agencies of government
would likely remain in Washington for the foreseeable future,
lawmakers might question why one congressional district receives so
large a share of federal largesse and over time eliminate the
capital's favored status.
Preserve the District's Unique
Congress's latest attempt to grant representation to the
District of Columbia by legislative fiat is not only
unconstitutional but potentially contrary to the District's
interests. If the city's unique status were changed by the addition
of such representation, the nation's capital could be deprived of
the congressional patronage on which it has for so long depended.
And finally, it is always to be remembered that residents of the
District are not compelled to live in the federal city, even if
they work in the District.
Joseph Postell is Assistant Director of the B.
Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at, and Nathaniel Ward
edits MyHeritage.org for, The Heritage Foundation.
James Madison, "Federalist # 39," The
Federalist, ed. Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan
University Press, 1961), p. 250, hereinafter cited as The
Federalist, number and page in the Cooke edition.
e.g., Lawrence L. Frankel, "National Representation for the
District of Columbia: A Legislative Solution," U. of Penn L.
Rev., Vol. 139 (1990), p. 1685: "It appears that the framers of
the Constitution did not deliberately intend to disenfranchise the
District, nor did they have any reason to do so."
Jonathan Turley, "Too Clever By Half: The
Unconstitutionality of Partial Representation of the District of
Columbia in Congress," Geo. Wash. L. Rev., Vol. 76 (2008),
United States v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 128,
135 (D.C. Cir. 1984).