Statehood for Washington, DC

For most Americans, the idea of statehood for Washington, DC is one of those far off, nebulous ideas that doesn’t really matter much. But for residents of the District it’s a really big deal, and it would be for anyone else who had no representation in Congress which has a great deal of control over their local government. District residents can vote for President1, mayor and other elected city officials2. In addition, District residents have the rights of initiative, referendum and recall that provide direct democratic processes for legislating and removal of unfit public officials. But that’s it – no Congressman, no Senator, no Governor or state representative or senator, just the President, mayor and other city officials. To top it off, instead of the city being incorporated within a state governed by officials whom District residents can vote for, the District is incorporated by Congress whose members they cannot vote for and who have frequently abused their power over the city in political battles between the two major parties.

The solution, long proposed by District residents and their supporters, is to grant statehood to the District making it the 51st state having it’s own Representative in the House and its own two Senators. While residents of Washington, DC deserve full representation in Congress, statehood is not a good solution as it would grant the city far greater influence in the federal government than any other city. There is no way in which this can be justified.

Washington, DC is a city, not a state. In no way does it resemble any state in the country – not even small states like Rhode Island or Delaware, or states with small populations like Vermont or Wyoming. The District is a geographically small, densely populated, incorporated city. It has no sparsely populated or unincorporated areas inside it. As a state, how would it be governed? Would it have a governor and a state legislature? Would it have in addition a mayor and city council? Would the city’s eight wards be treated as cities within the state? These proposals simply make no sense.

Except for the presence of the Capitol, White House and other federal facilities, it is no different than any other city. Several people argue that the population of the District is larger than Vermont and Wyoming and therefore should have the same representation. But the framers of the Constitution granted small states disproportionate representation, allotting each 2 senators, in order to protect states’ rights in a confederated form of government. No one ever envisioned giving states’ rights to cities. Giving statehood to the District would be equivalent to giving statehood to Boston, Denver or Seattle (cities of nearly equal population)3, a proposal that is preposterous. The simple fact that the District hosts the nation’s Capitol shouldn’t render its residents any more important than those of any other city.

The alternative to granting statehood to the District is to return it (excluding federal properties) back to Maryland in the same manner that Alexandria and Arlington4 5 were returned to Virginia in 18476. Federal properties would remain under federal jurisdiction just as all federal properties throughout the country. The District would then be like all other cities incorporated within states throughout the country with full representation in both houses of Congress. Problem solved.

Will the District ever be returned to Maryland? Probably not7. District residents and their supporters are holding out for statehood which, despite the House passage of a statehood bill, statehood won’t happen this year. (Republicans, who control the Senate by a thin margin, won’t permit the District to add two more Democratic Senators8.) However, If Democrats take over the Senate next year, I fear that statehood for the District could become a reality in spite of the fact it makes no sense whatsoever.

1 As of 1960.

2 As of 1974

3 Or why not give statehood to New York city, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and 15 other cities with populations greater than the District?

4 What is now known as Arlington County was originally known as Alexandria County. Alexandria County was formally separated from Alexandria City in 1870 and in 1920 Alexandria County was renamed Arlington County to eliminate confusion due to both having the same name.

5 The District of Columbia was created in 1790 as a 10 mile by 10 mile square spanning the Potomac River. Approximately 1/3 of the District on the south side of the river was ceded to the federal government by the state of Virginia and the remaining 2/3 on the north side of the river was ceded by the state of Maryland. Three cities were incorporated in the District: Georgetown, Alexandria and Washington.

6 The issue of disenfranchisement has arisen several times, the first occuring almost immediately following the Organic Act of 1801. Early proposals for retrocession to the states were voted down in Congress. After several attempts and extensive lobbying in Congress and the Virginia legislature, Congress authorized, and the residents of Alexandria passed, a referendum for retroceding the southern portion of the District back to Virginia in 1846. Congress subsequently passed a bill retroceding the region south of the Potomac back to Virginia and President Polk certified the referendum and issued a proclamation of transfer on September 7, 1846. The Virginia legislature finally approved the transfer on March 13, 1847.

7 The chief obstacle to this rational solution is an emotional one – a matter of prestige. Residents of the District don’t want to be citizens of Maryland (or any state other than their own). As residents of a ciy-state hosting the capitol, they are more important than residents of normal cities. For this reason and this reason alone, they will hold out for statehood at all cost.

8 The District is a Democratic stronghold and has never voted for a Republican president.