Why DC Cannot Become a State, Explained
A Legal Insight: The Fight Over DC Statehood.
This is info that we've gone over on our legal blog. However, considering the increased attention at stake for the nation's capital, we decided to expand with several major aspects that major media sources aren't covering. Consider that the changes needed to make the District of Columbia a state will not occur during this year's election. Even radical changes in the country's Congress will not bring about DC as a separate state. This is regardless of what any politician seeking office will try to tell you. It just cannot happen that way.
Where We Stand Now.
This is one of the largest political topics in the nation right now. It might not get attention in the same way the election is, but there are significant implications to the DC statehood movement. And, altogether they would impact the way that our nation functions down to its core. Take, for example, the fact that the DC city government fully supports the shift to make the federal district into a state. Last month, the Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives voted to make the District into a state.
The effort is a lost cause for now. The Republicans in control of the Senate will not pass such a bill. Still, that did not stop the lower chamber from accepting the proposal in a 232-180 vote. The New York Times covered the vote and its implications, which we will go into further detail below. However, among the many anecdotes and facts surrounding the vote, one stands out.
“Retrocession wouldn’t give the Democrats their real aim: two Democratic senators in perpetuity to rubber-stamp the swamp’s agenda, so you won’t hear them talk about it,” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, said on Thursday in a lengthy diatribe on the floor.
All of this comes with a lot of history, all the way back to the compromise that made our nation's government work the way that it does. To better understand history allows us a clearer lens into what is happening now.
The Peculiar History Of Washington DC.
The Brookings Institution published a rundown of the long history of what is affecting our nation's politics today. The article catalogs the current debate and long history of whether DC should be a state or not. This doesn't stop activists to want to change the name of the District. They want to go from the District of Columbia to the Douglass Commonwealth.
This would change the name to honor perhaps the second most famous and effective abolitionists behind Abraham Lincoln himself. However, that is beside the current point. The District of Columbia was a work of deep political compromise over the debts of the American Revolutionary War. In order to convince states that had already paid off their debts of the Revolution (like Virginia), the Washington Administration needed to convince these mostly-Southern states to accept the debts of the other members of the union.
The severe debt accumulated by the states, especially in the non-slaveholding North were crippling their governments and economy. In fact, the inability to pay out debts, including salaries and pensions to Revolutionary War vets caused Shay's Rebellion. This led to the crisis that then convinced the states to rewrite the Articles of Confederation and gave us the Constitution. As a result, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton needed to convince Southern states to go along with this plan. The plan was known as the Assumption for the assumption of state debts.
Hamilton, a Northerner from New York convinced other Founding Fathers to go along with the plan. In particular, he needed to convince Virginians (and future Presidents) Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to accede to the plan. As part of the compromise, the South got the site of the national capital in exchange for accepting the assumption plan.
Where It Headed In The 19th And 20th Centuries.
The original site of DC was situated half in Virginia and half in Maryland. The Maryland half still represents the nation's capital. The Virginia half was given back to the state in the early 19th century. This topic of "retrocession" is one that is still possible for the half that still makes up DC to go back to Maryland. Maryland is generally receptive to the idea, while those in DC are generally not. Due to this, some proposals call for the populated parts of the capital to go to the state while the monuments, White House, and capitol would remain in a smaller district.
This would solve the issue of votes in Congress and the nagging issue on their license plates of "taxation without representation." However, such a compromise appears to be unlikely. What was intended to be a geographically and populace small district turned into one with hundreds of thousands of residents. There have been multiple efforts to get DC statehood or transform its status. However, there are clear political and constitutional roadblocks to such an effort.
The Politics of DC Statehood
For starters is the fact that the Democrats want a new state that their party can dominate. Democrats already make up the vast majority of members of the City Council. Furthermore, in Presidential races, the District regularly votes about 90% for Democrats.
It also sends a Democratic delegate (non-voting) to the House every two years. Put all of this together, and it's obvious why and how the Democrats want to get another state in their column. Without any voting members in Congress, the District of Columbia does not have the same representation as states. It is designed to be that way. The Founders feared that giving too much political influence on the capital territory may lead to an accumulation of political and financial power.
Some would argue that this is already the case. Just imagine how this would work if DC also had the benefit of two Senators and a member of the House of Representatives. It already adds three votes to the Electoral College for the Democrats every four years. Adding in three more members of Congress would make it much easier for the Democrats to get and hold Congress in each election. Still, a simple floor vote can't do it.
The Constitutional Matter.
The House vote in June was mostly political theatre. Similar bills came and went on the floor of Congress. None have been able to gain DC statehood. Considering that the Constitution specifically calls for a separate federal territory, it appears unlikely that DC could gain statehood legally without a Constitutional amendment. Democrats may try to push the issue if they win big in 2020. They would have the votes to try for a simple majority.
Furthermore, leading Democrats want to rid the country of the legislative filibuster in the Senate. This could give them the "nuclear option" needed to push for statehood. Still, there is a significant chance that this action would be flagrantly unconstitutional and would require a judgment of the Supreme Court. Considering the Court's conservative bent, this may not be possible.
Democrats have threatened to appoint additional justices above the existing nine-- which may be strictly legal but go against over a century of precedent. This sort of move may be what they need to make DC a state. Keep reading here for more info as we update.
- Ehline Law: Why DC Cannot Become a State, Explained https://ehlinelaw.com/blog/constitution-washington-dc
- DC City Government: Why Statehood for DC https://statehood.dc.gov/page/why-statehood-dc
- The New York Times: In Historic Vote, House Approves Statehood for the District of Columbia https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/us/politics/dc-statehood-house-vote.html
- Brookings Institution: The politics and history of the D.C. statehood vote https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/06/25/the-politics-and-history-of-the-d-c-statehood-vote/