WASHINGTON — A drive to give the District of Columbia a long-sought U.S. House vote may also give Utah a fourth seat — which it argued it deserved after the last census, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., is floating the idea of expanding the 435-member House by two seats and handing one each to Washington, D.C., and Utah.
That is seen as a way to avoid any extra advantage for either political party, because Washington is overwhelmingly Democratic — by an 11-1 margin in voter registration — and Utah is heavily Republican. So each party would be expected to pick up a seat.
It would be the first expansion of the House in 45 years. The House has had 435 voting members since 1912, except for a period between 1959 and 1963 when it was temporarily expanded to 437 when Alaska and Hawaii became states. The size of the House is set by law, not by the Constitution.
Davis represents a northern Virginia district that includes suburbs of Washington. He has been a proponent of giving it a vote in the House — which it has never had. Currently, Washington has only a non-voting House delegate, as do the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Washington residents have long pushed for votes in Congress and even added to its license plates in recent years the slogan, "Taxation Without Representation."
Davis was unavailable for comment. However, he said in a recent interview with a Washington radio station, "It's hard to make a straight-faced argument that the capital of the Free World shouldn't have a vote in Congress."
But most other Republicans have been reluctant to give Washington a seat that almost surely would be forever Democratic. So Davis is exploring the option of also creating the additional seat for heavily Republican Utah as a counterbalance.
Congressional staff list several reasons for giving that seat to Utah. First, under population formulas, Utah was next in line for a seat after the 2000 Census.
In fact, if Utah had just another 857 residents in that census, it would have won another seat that instead went to North Carolina. Utah argued in courts that the census was flawed, including that it did not count Utah residents serving abroad in missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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It also took another argument all the way to the Supreme Court, contending that the Census Bureau's practice of estimating the number of people at homes that could not be contacted after several tries amounted to "sampling" banned by the Constitution. If it had not been used, Utah would have won the extra seat. But the court rejected the argument.
Reaction to Davis' idea is mixed — with Washington officials giving begrudging support, Utah Republicans singing its praises, but Utah Democrats eying it with suspicion.
Washington's non-voting House delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she had discussed the idea with Davis for months and, "My position remains that congressional representation for the district means a voting representative and two senators."
However, she said, "I appreciate Tom's efforts on behalf of D.C. voting rights and have encouraged him to continue those efforts."
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, a member of Davis' committee, likes the idea. (He has also pushed the committee to make other changes to benefit Utah in the next census, including counting missionaries abroad.)
"If this (adding two seats) were to happen, Utah would be the logical seat to add. Utahns are the most underrepresented people in Congress, and at the rate we're growing, we'll gain two seats in the 2010 Census," Cannon said.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Joe Cannon, Chris' brother, said, "It would be a great idea." He added, "I think we deserve that seat anyway. I think the Supreme Court was reluctant to undo something that had been done that late in the game. I never contemplated it would happen this way."
But Joe Cannon also cautions, "It seems like it would almost be impossible to get this done in time for the next election. It's a little over a year away. More important for Utah, is we are just months away from caucuses and the beginning of House races.
Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Meg Holbrook said, "I don't think we know enough about the matter" to say whether the party supports it. But she says she worries Republicans are trying to work around the Supreme Court decision against Utah "and take another bite out of the apple."
She also worries what the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature might do if it draws a new four-district map — and that it might gerrymander lines worse in an effort to unseat Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, by making his already heavily GOP district even more Republican. In short, the GOP might try to gain two seats and not just one.
"The current 2nd District (Matheson's) was described by the Wall Street Journal as the worst gerrymander in America. So the precedent is there for the Legislature to be less than fair," she said.
The Legislature had adopted a map for four districts when it hoped the Supreme Court would give it an extra seat. It would not need to keep that exact plan if the House awards it the seat now, but many politicians figure it would likely stay close to it.
Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said those districts have roughly the same split of Democrats and Republicans as the current three-district map and might even help Democrats slightly. But Holbrook said, "I worry what the Legislature would do if it had the chance to redraw it again."