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DC statehood: Why it should (and should not) happen

It’s important because it is an official step toward creating a new state for the first time in a lifetime, but also no big deal because the proposal is DOA in the Senate, where Republicans have enough votes to block it.

This issue is not going away, however. 2021 is the second consecutive year House Democrats have voted to make DC a state.

The more than 700,000 people who live in Washington, DC, don’t have a voting member of Congress — only a delegate in the House — or representation in the Senate. Seven hundred thousand people isn’t nearly the size of most states, but it is certainly more than the populations of two, Vermont and Wyoming, and on par with Alaska, each of which has two senators and a voting member of Congress.

So DC residents have no say in the federal government?

Actually, they do — a little. The 23rd Amendment, enacted in 1961, gives District residents a say in presidential elections. The District is treated like a state for that purpose only, and it gets three Electoral College votes. But that’s only one portion of the representation a US citizen should probably get.

Are DC residents the only Americans not represented in Congress?

Far from it. DC residents have it better than Puerto Ricans. The residents of that US territory are American citizens but they don’t have voting members of Congress and don’t get to vote in presidential elections unless they’re living in a state.

Wait a minute. There are more than 3 million Americans living in Puerto Rico, but only about 700,000 living in DC. Why isn’t anyone talking about making Puerto Rico a state?

Everybody should get representation in Congress. Why NOT make DC a state?

For starters, the Constitution sort of seems to say it can’t be done. Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution says Congress should be in charge of the seat of government, which will be a “District (not exceeding ten Miles square).”

So you’d have to change the Constitution to make DC a state?

Maybe not. The bill passed by the House offers a sneaky and elegant solution. It simply shrinks the size of the federal district to the area just around the National Mall, the White House and Capitol Hill, where pretty much nobody but the President lives. The bill would make a state out of the bulk of the city. There would still be a district, but there would also be a new state.
Can you do that? Just change the size of the district?

It’s been done before. When it was originally conceived, Washington, DC, was formed from land ceded by both Virginia, west of the Potomac River, and Maryland, east of the Potomac. In the 1840s, the areas west of the Potomac rejoined Virginia in a process called “retrocession.”

What is today Arlington and parts of Alexandria used to be part of Washington, DC. Where today DC’s map looks like a square on two sides with a river bordering part of the rest, it used to just look like a square. This new proposal would shrink it even further.

Why was Alexandria allowed to retrocede in 1846?

The main stated reason was that the former Virginians on the west side of the Potomac felt neglected by the power base across the river, where the federal buildings were being erected. The real reason may have been that the Virginians feared slavery would be outlawed in DC and they would lose the slave market in Alexandria.

Why haven’t DC residents been given full rights before?

The short answer is equilibrium. Or Republicans’ version of it, considering there are fewer Republicans in the US than Democrats. And two senators elected from DC would almost surely be Democrats, so with the Senate currently split 50-50, expect the GOP to fight this tooth and nail.

Is there a middle ground? Why not just give most of the Maryland side of DC back to Maryland?

DC residents have their own all-or-nothing approach, choosing not to pursue retrocession of the portion of the District that was formerly part of Maryland. That would give DC residents a say in Congress without upsetting the current equilibrium.

“DC voters have already said loud and clear that we do not want retrocession, we want statehood,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in 2019. She has repeatedly rejected this idea.

What would happen to the 23rd Amendment if Congress made DC a state?

The bill before Congress says the US would start undoing the amendment. But it takes an amendment to undo an amendment. A constitutional amendment takes years of effort. While the statehood bill envisions a fast track to this process, it’d have to work flawlessly, otherwise the few people who still lived in the federally controlled district might continue to get three electoral votes. (This type of thing will be the subject of lawsuits.)

What do Americans in general say?

About two-thirds of Americans opposed making DC a state in a Gallup poll in 2019. Interestingly, polling found the reverse for Puerto Rico — two-thirds of Americans supported statehood for the territory.

What’s it take to make a new state?

Adding a state does not require a constitutional amendment. It just requires the OK of the House, the Senate and the President, although Congress can — and usually has — made it more complicated than that.

When was the last time a state was added?

1959. See that note about equilibrium above. In the late 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was President, Alaska and Hawaii were added at roughly the same time. Since the Senate operates with a requirement for a supermajority (60 senators) to enact legislation, Republicans can effectively block any moves by Democrats to make DC or Puerto Rico a state.

Are there any other obstacles?

The plan to simply shrink the capital district is clever. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that it’s legal. The Supreme Court currently has a Republican-appointed majority, and it’s an open question how it would rule if Republicans took the case to court.

Anything else?

Yes. So much more. It’s certainly worth noting that Democrats in particular have been talking about fundamental changes to the US system of government in recent years. A lot of Democrats want to change the format of the Supreme Court, and overhaul the Electoral College, which gives so much power to states with fewer people.

There’s also the weirdness of a country where such tiny states have such power int he Senate, which can put a stop to any legislation it wants. If we’re going to add seats for DC, why not add seats by breaking up California or Texas or Florida, massive states that only get two senators.

Last thing: Where would you fit a 51st star on the American flag?

Great question. People are already thinking about that. But trust me. They’d find space.
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