George Will / February 5, 2009

The 51st State*

WASHINGTON – One answer is: Six rows of stars – the top, third and fifth rows with nine, the second, fourth and sixth rows with eight. The question is: How might the nation reconfigure its flag to acknowledge a 51st state. Or “state.”

The question is pertinent, or would be were Congress inclined to adhere to the Constitution. Both the House and Senate are moving toward pretending, as part of a disgraceful bargain with Utah, that the District of Columbia is a state.

The D.C. House Voting Rights Act will give the District a full voting member in the House of Representatives. The problem is, or should be, that although the Constitution has provisions that allow various interpretations, the following is not one of those provisions: The House shall be composed of members chosen “by the people of the several states.”

But the District is not a state. It is (as the Constitution says in Article I, Section 8) “the seat of the government of the United States.” That is why, in 1978, the District’s advocates sent to the states a constitutional amendment requiring that “for purposes of representation” the district would be “treated as though it were a state.” Only 16 states ratified it, 22 short of the required number. So the District’s advocates decided that an amendment is unnecessary – a statute will suffice because the Constitution empowers Congress “to exercise exclusive legislation” over the District. They argue that this power can be used to, in effect, amend the Constitution by nullifying Article I, Section 2’s requirement that House members come from “the several states.” This argument, that Congress’ legislative power trumps the Constitution, means that Congress could establish religion, abridge freedom of speech and of the press and abolish the right of peaceful assembly in the District.

And, of course, Congress next could give the District two senators. Which probably is the main objective of the Democrats who are most of the supporters of this end run around the Constitution. In the 12 elections since the District acquired, by constitutional amendment, the right to allocate presidential electoral votes, it has never cast less than 74.8 percent of its popular vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. That amendment, the 23rd, stipulates that the District shall allocate the number of electoral votes to which it would be entitled “if it were a state.” If.

Senate passage of the D.C. House Voting Rights Act is assured, partly because under the Act’s terms, Utah, which has two Republican senators, will be awarded a fourth House seat. The state came close to qualifying for a fourth after the 2000 census and, because it is growing like Jack’s beanstalk, would have been awarded a fourth after the 2010 census. But why wait for 2012? The Constitution, that cobweb, is all that stands between Utah and instant gratification. So for the first time in 96 years, the size of the House will be permanently increased, by two members, to 437. Last year, as a senator, Barack Obama supported the act, so when it flutters onto his desk, he will sign it, although a veto would seem to be required by the recent oath he swore to defend the Constitution from threats, presumably including Congress.

Still, a freshly minted adjective describes this unseemly handing out, like party favors, of seats in the national legislature: Blagojevichian. He had an unsavory plan for filling one Senate seat for a while. Congress has an anti-constitutional plan for creating two Senate seats and one in the House forever.

When the first modification of the nation’s flag was occasioned by the admission to the union of Vermont and Kentucky in 1791 and 1792, respectively, Congress stipulated that the flag have 15 stars – and 15 stripes. But by the time the second modification was ordered, in 1818, there were 20 states. It was clear – because of Manifest Destiny, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” etc. – that the flag was going to resemble the necktie displays nowadays at Brooks Brothers (founded in 1818) – too many stripes. So the flag went back to 13 stripes, and only stars have proliferated.

When the 51st star is added for the District, Congress should make at least a limited nod to the Constitution by stipulating that the star be bracketed by quotation marks, or have over it a small asterisk. This would be a way of saying: “As if it were a state.”

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group 

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