Steve Chapman

Dissatisfied with the status quo but unable to alter it with a constitutional amendment, Washingtonians finally exclaimed: Amendment? We don't need no stinkin' amendment!

The rationale is that the Constitution, which provides for the capital, gives Congress the power "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District." Therefore, it may do just about anything it pleases, including give the District a vote in the House.

But the argument proves too much. The same provision gives the national legislature "like authority over all places purchased … for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards and other needful buildings." If Congress can give the District a voting representative, it may give voting representatives to Fort Hood, the White Sands Missile Range and the Rock Island Arsenal. Which, obviously, it may not.

Washingtonians imagine they are victims of an injustice caused by a mere oversight, insisting that the framers never meant to disenfranchise them. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University (location: Washington, D.C.), punctures this beguiling myth.

"The absence of a vote in Congress was clearly understood as a prominent characteristic of a federal district," he wrote last year in the George Washington Law Review. "Moreover, being a resident of the new capital city was viewed as compensation for the limitation. The fact that members would work, and generally reside, in the District gave the city sufficient attention in Congress."

A proposal by Alexander Hamilton to give the District congressional representation failed. So the founders knew what they were doing.

If Americans think they were mistaken on this point, the way to correct the error is a constitutional amendment. For the president and Congress to pretend none is needed betrays an alarming casualness about the Constitution. If they can look there and find the authority to give the District a seat in the House, they can probably also find a five-legged dog.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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