The House of Representatives is poised to make a bit of history on Friday, when, with all-but-unanimous Democratic support, it is expected to approve a bill — H.R. 51 — that would make Washington, D.C., the nation’s 51st state.
The House vote will be merely symbolic, since the bill isn’t going to be brought up in the Republican-controlled Senate. President Trump said last month that Republicans would have to be “very, very stupid” to let the District of Columbia become a state and enlarge Congress with new seats guaranteed to be Democratic.
Partisan considerations are woven into Washington life, of course, and the admission of new states to the union has historically been entangled in balance-of-power politics. But there are much better reasons to oppose D.C. statehood — or, for that matter, to support it — than the deep-blue loyalties of the district’s voters.
The pro-statehood argument is straightforward: It is outrageous, advocates say, that the 700,000 US citizens who live in Washington, D.C., are denied what their fellow citizens in the 50 states take for granted: representation in Congress. The case for statehood is emblazoned on every District of Columbia license plate: “End Taxation Without Representation.” Susan Rice, a D.C. native who was President Obama’s national security adviser, wrote in a recent column that only statehood can end “the enduring oppression of the citizens of the District of Columbia.”
If you’re a Washington resident, you probably find that argument convincing: In a 2016 referendum, 86 percent of D.C. voters supported statehood. But in the rest of the country, it doesn’t fly: A Gallup survey last summer found that 64 percent of Americans opposed D.C. statehood vs. just 29 percent in favor. Previous polls on the question have had similar results. By contrast, Americans have long favored statehood for Puerto Rico.
Clearly, what Rice and many Washingtonians regard as “enduring oppression” is seen very differently by most Americans.
It’s not by accident or oversight that the nation’s capital isn’t a state: The Founding Fathers wrote it into the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 provides explicitly for a national capital that would not be part of a state nor treated as a state, but rather a unique enclave under the exclusive authority of Congress — a neutral “district” in which representatives of all the states could meet on an equal footing to conduct the nation’s business.
Not being citizens of a state, the district’s residents wouldn’t elect their own members of Congress. But that didn’t mean they were condemned to “taxation without representation.” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, testified at a 2007 congressional hearing that the framers of the Constitution “repeatedly stated that the district would be represented by the entire Congress and that members . . . would bear a special interest in its operations.”
Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom or fairness of the framers’ plan, but the only way to change it is to amend the Constitution. That’s exactly what happened in 1961, when the 23rd Amendment was ratified and D.C. residents were granted the right to vote in presidential elections and participate in the Electoral College. In 1978 Congress passed another amendment, giving the District of Columbia seats in the Senate and the House, but only 16 states ratified it. It may frustrate Washingtonians to be denied the perquisites of statehood on Capitol Hill, but Americans plainly have not wanted to change the Constitution to make that happen.
So House Democrats have come up with a creative constitutional workaround. H.R. 51, the bill to be voted on next Friday, purports to shrink the District of Columbia to just the few blocks along the National Mall containing the various federal government buildings, such as the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, plus the “principal federal monuments.” The rest of the city would be rechristened “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” and admitted as the 51st state.
Give the drafters points for ingenuity, but their scheme is too clever by half. Congress cannot change the status of the capital district simply by redefining it. Washington, D.C.’s one-of-a-kind standing in the federal system is spelled out in the Constitution; the only way to modify that standing is to modify the Constitution. The plain meaning of Article I is that “the Seat of Government of the United States” comprises all the land supplied for that purpose. H.R. 51 would turn it instead into exactly what the Framers rejected — an island of government buildings, with perhaps a few hundred residents, enveloped within a state.
And what about those few hundred residents? As long as the 23rd Amendment is in force, the District of Columbia is guaranteed at least three votes in the Electoral College. Under the House bill, those votes would be controlled by the microscopic population of the drastically shrunken district, making them far and away the most influential voters in the nation. Such an outcome would obviously be absurd, yet it would be unavoidable unless the 23rd Amendment were repealed. And the only way to repeal a constitutional amendment is with another amendment.
Like most things, life in Washington involves tradeoffs: D.C. residents are closer to the levers of federal power than anyone else, they have free access to many of the nation’s foremost cultural treasures, and they have some of the highest average household and individual incomes in the country. On the other hand, they don’t live in a state and they don’t vote for members of Congress. Most Americans don’t see a problem with that arrangement, and they’ve got the Constitution on their side.