One Person, One Vote?

George Will
|
Posted: Jan 28, 2007 12:01 AM
One Person, One Vote?

"The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states ..." -- Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 2.

"What's the Constitution between friends?" -- Rep. Timothy Campbell, a Tammany Democrat, to Democratic President Grover Cleveland after Cleveland said that a bill Campbell favored was unconstitutional.

WASHINGTON -- There they go again. House Democrats should at least provide variety in their venality. Last Wednesday, fresh from legislating new ethics regarding relations with lobbyists, they demonstrated that there are worse forms of corruption than those involving martinis and money.

They again voted to give the delegates to the House from Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, and the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico, the right to vote in the House when it is sitting as the "Committee of the Whole," which is how it sits almost all the time. It is in that status that almost all debate about and amending of legislation occur.

If these five votes decide the outcome of a vote in the Committee of the Whole, the matter at issue will be automatically revoted by the full House without those five participating. Still, these five faux members will have powers equal to those of real members on everything but final passage of bills, which often is more perfunctory than the process that leads to that. Almost always, all five delegates are Democrats. (Puerto Rico's current resident commissioner is the first Republican in 100 years.)

What part of the words "several states" do House Democrats not understand? Their cynical assumption is that "the people of the several states" will not notice this dilution of their representation in the House.

Members of Congress today represent, on average, 687,000 people. The population of Guam is 171,000; of American Samoa, 58,000; and of the Virgin Islands, 109,000. The 3.9 million Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and have the right to vote for statehood, which they have rejected in three plebiscites (1967, 1993, 1998).

The 58,000 Samoans pay no federal income taxes, but their delegate will be able to participate in raising the taxes of, say, Montanans. Samoa's delegate will have virtually the same power as Rep. Denny Rehberg, who represents all 944,000 Montanans. Obviously the Democrats' reverence for the principle "one person, one vote" is, well, situational.

January 1993 was the last time Democrats engaged in this cynical political alchemy, transmuting delegates from four island jurisdictions, and one from the seat of the federal government, into the functional equivalents of representatives selected by people of ``the several states.'' In January 1993, two months after they lost 10 House seats, they counterfeited half that many votes -- even though they had an 82-seat majority. One year later, such arrogance contributed to the Democrats' loss of their House majority.

In 1970, Democrats were contemplating allowing Puerto Rico's resident commissioner to serve with powers equal to those of real members, but only on standing committees. Rep. Tom Foley, a Washington Democrat then in his third term, told his colleagues that would be fine because those committees are created by the House, not the Constitution, and "can be extinguished at will and created at will." Furthermore, service on committees involves only "preliminary advisory votes." But, he added, "it is very clear" that "a constitutional amendment would be required" to give a resident commissioner" a vote in the Committee of the Whole of the full House." By 1992, when Foley, then in his 14th term, was speaker, and full of the sense of entitlement that deranged Democrats in the last years of their 40-year hold on the House, he supported what the next Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has now done. In 1994, Foley became the first speaker since 1862 to be defeated, and the new Republican majority undid what the Democrats had done.

For Speaker Pelosi, two questions about the possible scope of your majoritarian abuse: Given your disregard of the unambiguous language and clear intent of Article I, Section 2 -- which uses the word "state" eight times to designate the only entity from which a member of the House may be chosen -- do you acknowledge any impediment to using your majority to give "Committee of the Whole" voting power to a delegate from, say, the AFL-CIO?

Or, for that matter: Do you think that Article I, Section 5 ("Each house shall be the judge of the ... qualifications of its own members") allows your majority to give such voting powers to your hairdresser? If not, why not?