Chaffetz: Fourth-seat bill for Utah 'unconstitutional'

Published January 27, 2009 4:19 pm
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Lawmakers are on track to hand Utah a fourth House seat and the District of Columbia a full-voting member of Congress, but opponents are erecting hurdles to block the dual move.

With bolstered Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and several Republicans in line as well, supporters say they have the votes to pass the DC Voting Rights Act -- but not without a fight.

"Even though my state, my state of Utah, stands to benefit, this bill is just simply unconstitutional," freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday. "I support the idea and the notion that Utah" should get a fourth seat but "I still don't think you can run around the Constitution to get what you want."

Chaffetz's idea: Give the district, and its residents, back to Maryland, a state from which the land for the nation's capital originally was carved, and Utah can wait for the 2010 Census to get its additional seat.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, argues that if the complaint of D.C.'s 600,000 residents is about "taxation without representation," then he will introduce legislation to exempt them from the federal income tax.

"We shouldn't just toss the Constitution," Gohmert said.

The Texan also said he would sponsor a bill that would transfer the district back to Maryland, leaving just the National Mall, White House, Capitol and a few other government buildings as a federal enclave.

On the other side, backers are lining up to push the bill, including Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who penned a letter to the House Judiciary Committee arguing the measure is needed to correct a miscount by the 2000 Census that cost Utah a fourth House seat. Huntsman also disagrees with Chaffetz, his former chief of staff. Utah's Republican governor said he hasn't studied the constitutionality of the bill "extensively," but he is "impressed and persuaded by the scholarship represented in this legislation."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s House delegate who can vote in committee but not on the floor, said advocates are ready for any attempt to derail their bill. The idea of ceding the district to Maryland, she said, or banning federal income taxes from its residents have been tried before and failed.

Subcommittee chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., questioned whether Utah needs to be part of the bill since there are enough votes to pass it without adding the Beehive State. Utah was added originally because it is likely to elect a Republican, which would balance a likely Democratic member from D.C. But bill advocates say they plan to keep Utah in the legislation.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, maintains his state should stay part of the effort to ensure it snags a fourth House seat -- just in case the 2010 Census doesn't deliver one.

tburr@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">tburr@sltrib.com

Constitution: for and against

Those for and against legislation granting a House seat to the District of Columbia and another to Utah have constitutional scholars on their sides arguing that the bill either will pass judicial muster or will be unceremoniously tossed out. It's a question the U.S. Supreme Court might ultimately have to answer.

The gist is this: The U.S. Constitution sets out, in Article 1, that the House shall be composed of "members chosen every second year by the people of the several states," and, since D.C. isn't a state, it cannot be represented. Furthermore, the bill's opponents say giving the district a House member would require a constitutional amendment, such as the 23rd Amendment that gave district resident three electoral votes for president.

On the other side, supporters say that courts have recognized D.C. as a "state" for other purposes, such as levying federal taxes and giving defendants the right to jury trials, two actions the Constitution expressly gives only states. Plus, they say, Congress, as the federal legislative body, has autonomy over D.C., as the federal city, and can expand Congress' ranks to include a district representative.

Thomas Burr

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