Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution provides that among Congress' extremely limited powers is the power to "exercise exclusive Legislation ... over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may ... become the Seat of the Government of the United States."
In Federalist No. 43, James Madison explained that if Congress did not control the seat of government, federal officials would be dependent on the surrounding state "for protection in the exercise of their duty." The host state might "bring in the national counsels an imputation of awe or influence equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the confederacy."
That's why the seat of government can't be a state or a part of a state. Rather, it was to be formed by the "cession of particular states," and with "the acceptance of Congress," the ceded land would "become the seat of the government of the United States."
In 1790, Maryland and Virginia ceded some of their land -- uninhabitable swampland, to be precise -- to the federal government, and pursuant to the Act of Acceptance, the District of Columbia was formally "accepted for the permanent seat of the government of the United States."
In a rare miscalculation, the Anti-Federalists denounced the clause on the grounds that the district of the national government would become a den of popery. Seriously: Popery -- as in the Roman Pontiff, servant of the servants of God, Vicar of Christ on Earth, whore of Babylon, etc., etc.
As it turned out, the principal use for the Bible in Washington for the last several decades was as a Sunday-morning prop for a felonious adulterer. (Shortly before the felon finally vacated the White House in January, he switched the license plates on the presidential limousine to the pro-D.C. statehood plates bearing the words: "Taxation Without Representation.")
Other than the burning popery issue, it was not a particularly controversial provision. Madison thought the district power clause "carries its own evidence with it." Of course, he thought the point of limited government was self-evident, too.
Even the Supreme Court still acknowledges it. Just last October, without bothering to hear arguments, the court threw out a lawsuit demanding federal "representation" for Washington residents.
But up in Detroit, the mayors were enthusiastic about ignoring this blindingly clear constitutional provision.
Mayor H. Brent Coles, Republican mayor of Boise, Idaho, said Washington should have a "voting voice" in Congress. Lee Clancey, Republican mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said: "I think it is awkward for Washington to be the seat of government and not be represented."
Mayor Arlene Mulder, Republican mayor of Arlington Heights, Ill., invoked the "f-word," saying it was only "fair" for D.C. residents to have congressional representatives. I vote in Connecticut, and I can tell you, congressional representation is way overrated.
Bill Johnson Jr., Democratic mayor of Rochester, N.Y., used the r-word, saying, "I think ... it is still a racial issue."
Popery is a more plausible charge than "racism." In 1787, when the Constitution was adopted, black suffrage was not at the top of the framers' list. Though some blacks voted for ratifying conventions, the original Constitution does not mention racial distinctions at all. The Constitution would not guarantee blacks the right to vote for almost another hundred years. (Fifty-two years before women, for those keeping score.)
Indeed, the District of Columbia wasn't the seat of government yet. The first Congress met in New York City in 1789. Taking away New York's congressional representation isn't a bad idea, either.
In any event, the framers could not possibly have foreseen: 1) the eventuality of full, constitutionally guaranteed black suffrage a century down the road, 2) swampland on the Maryland-Virginia border becoming the seat of government, and 3) a huge migration (almost two centuries later) of southern blacks to that very swampland.
Ninety percent of what Congress does, conservatively speaking, it does not have constitutional authority to do. Exercising exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia actually is one of Congress' duties.
If citizens of the District of Columbia want to vote, they can ratify an amendment to the Constitution repealing existing provisions. That's how they won the right to vote in presidential elections in 1961. (Alternatively, they could move to a state.) The one thing they really, really shouldn't try is an end-run around the Constitution by yammering about racism or fairness.
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