The leadership of the District of Columbia—aka Washington, D.C.—and most Democratic political figures are fired up to make the District the 51st state. The dominant complaint is that residents of the District suffer from “taxation without representation,” a major slogan of the American Revolution. But this appealing claim for voting rights is really a tip-of-the-iceberg tactic Democrats are using to gain control of all branches of the federal government and make it very difficult for Republicans or any type of non-leftist party to gain power in the future.
This is not the first time that the Washington, D.C., leadership has pushed for statehood and full voting rights. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has been Washington’s non-voting member of the House of Representatives since 1991, has introduced a statehood bill in every session. This year statehood has overwhelming support, as the Democrats control the House of Representatives, and 219 of them have co-sponsored the House measure, though no Republicans have signed on.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser went before Congress on September 16 of this year to push the case for statehood. In a procession reminiscent of a Roman triumph, she led a caravan of cars toward the U.S. Capitol past 140 newly hung American flags with an extra 51st star to symbolize the city’s objective.
Now, it is not the case that citizens of the District have no right to vote. D.C. residents have had the right to vote for President since 1964 as a result of the Twenty-third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And they have had the right to vote for a mayor and city council members since 1973 (and periodically before that time). Congress does have the right to overturn laws enacted by the city council, but it rarely exercises it. Looming largest now is the fact that Washington citizens cannot vote for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and, most importantly, the U.S. Senate, with its two votes for every state.
One could point out that if any denizens of Washington, D.C., really had their hearts set on full voting rights, all they would have to do is move a couple of miles to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, both of which have housing that can be cheaper than the District’s. Moreover, Prince George’s County, Maryland is 86 percent non-white compared to the District’s 60 percent non-white, so there is no serious problem for non-whites to move out of the District. And for the inner suburbs there is extensive public bus and Metrorail service. But as this article will show, inhabitants of D.C. could obtain full voting rights without being a state, but it is a route that the leadership is not pursuing, which implies that full voting rights for Washingtonians are but a part of other, more important goals.
Why don’t the citizens who live in America’s capital have full voting rights? This goes back to an event that occurred in June 1783, when a horde of angry soldiers attacked the Philadelphia Statehouse where the U.S. Congress under the Articles of Confederation (the first U.S. government) was meeting to collect back pay for their service during the American Revolution. (The actual fighting had by then largely ceased). Seeking protection, Congress requested that the governor of Pennsylvania call up the state militia. The governor, however, identified with the soldiers’ cause and refused to take any steps against them. Consequently, Congress fled from Philadelphia, reconvening in Princeton, New Jersey.
When delegates would return to Philadelphia in 1787 to draw up a new U.S. Constitution, the 1783 event loomed large in their minds, leading them to conclude that the new national government should be located in a special district where it would have its own security and not be dependent upon the support of a state. Consequently, in Article One, Section 8, Clause 17 of the new U.S. Constitution, Congress was given the power “To . . . exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States.” This came to be known as the “District Clause.”
James Madison (known as the “Father of the Constitution”) in Federalist Paper 43 argued that placing the capital city within a state would subject the federal government to undue influence by the host state. (The Federalist Papers were intended to describe the new Constitution to persuade New Yorkers to support ratification and are still considered one of the most important sources for interpreting the intent of the U.S. Constitution.) Madison described the crucial importance of the District Clause thus: “The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government, carries its own evidence with it. . .. Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy.”
In short, the federal government was given the Constitutional right to exercise authority over the area established for the seat of the government. The Founders intended that the nation’s capital remain separate from a state government and not face any pressure from the latter. The Supreme Court has interpreted the District Clause as giving Congress permanent and plenary power over the District. Congress can delegate various powers of home rule, as it has done in the past, but retains the power to resume full control of the District at any time.
The Constitution, however, did not call for a specific site for the location of the new District. The legislatures of Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia all offered territory for the location of the national capital. Before any decision was made, New York City served as a temporary capital for the new government from April 1789 to 1790 while Congress was deciding upon the location of the permanent capital.
How the capital came to be established on the Potomac River, which was considered to be in the South at that time, was a roundabout deal thought up by Alexander Hamilton in 1790. He proposed that the federal government should assume the substantial war debts of the states. Many Northern states were bankrupt, whereas the Southern states had already repaid most of their war debts and had less to gain from this financial transition. Thus, to propitiate the Southern states, the permanent national capital would be set up on the Potomac with Maryland and Virginia donating land that would make up an area 10 miles square (100 square miles). This deal came to be known as the Compromise of 1790, and besides Hamilton included Thomas Jefferson and Madison.
The official establishment of the permanent capital on the banks of the Potomac was enacted by the Residence Act, which was signed into law by President George Washington on July 16, 1790. It also set a deadline of December 1800 for the capital to be ready, and designated Philadelphia as the nation’s temporary capital while the new seat of government was being constructed.
At George Washington’s behest, Congress amended the Residence Act in 1791 to permit Alexandria, Virginia’s inclusion in the federal district. Members of Congress had recognized that Washington and his family owned property in and near Alexandria, so the amendment included a provision that prohibited the “erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the river Potomac.” This would have a significant impact later.
On May 15, 1800, Congress terminated its residence in Philadelphia and started the move to the new capital. President John Adams left Philadelphia in April and moved into the White House in November. Philadelphia officially ceased to be the nation’s capital on June 11, 1800.
The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 formally placed the District under the control of Congress as required by the Constitution. The residents of the District of Columbia were no longer residents of either Maryland or Virginia. Thus, District residents were no longer able to vote for members of Congress or the President.
The War of 1812 saw a British invasion force on August 24, 1814, easily defeat an American army comprised largely of Maryland militia in the Battle of Bladensburg (on the eastern boundary of the District) and then burned most of the new federal buildings, including the Capitol and the President’s Mansion [the White House]. This led to a vote in the House of Representatives on October 15, 1814, to temporarily move the capital from Washington, but it was defeated by a close vote of 83-74.
The most significant event affecting Washington, D.C., pertaining to this essay was the retrocession of the Virginia part of the District to the state of Virginia. A significant number of the inhabitants in the portion of the District donated by Virginia had become disenchanted with their situation and wanted their land to be returned to the state of Virginia. Being part of the District seemed to have more negative than positive effects, which went beyond the lack of voting rights. The 1791 amendment to the Residence Act that specifically restricted the construction of public buildings to the Maryland side of the Potomac hindered the expansion of commerce on the Virginia side. Regarding internal improvements, the District was doing less for its Virginia portion than the Virginia government was doing for comparable areas within its jurisdiction. Furthermore, anti-slavery sentiment was becoming more powerful in the North, so some inhabitants on the Virginia side feared that Congress would stop the slave trade in the District, which was very valuable to Alexandria with its large slave market. A vote in the formerly Virginia area showed that its inhabitants wanted their area to be returned, the U.S. Congress gave its approval, and the area was retroceded to the state of Virginia in 1846. We will get back to retrocession later, since it has relevance today in regard to providing full voting rights.
Various efforts have been made to get around the fact that the Founders had prohibited the capital city from being a state or being a part of a state. In 1978, Congress proposed an amendment to the Constitution declaring that “[f]or purposes of representation in the Congress, election of the President and Vice President, and Article V of this Constitution, the District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall be treated as though it were a State.” This questionable amendment failed to gain the support of the 38 of the 50 states that was required for adoption. By the seven-year expiration date, only 16 states had ratified the amendment, and the amendment thus failed.
Currently, D.C. officials are touting what is being called the “Tennessee Model” to gain statehood, rather than fight for a constitutional amendment. In 1795, the territory of Tennessee, then known as the Southwest Territory, drafted a constitution and held a referendum on whether it should ask Congress for admission to the union as a state. The request was made the following year, and Congress approved it, making Tennessee the nation’s 16th state.
Mayor Bowser followed this approach by drafting a state constitution, which D.C. residents voted in favor of by a large margin in April 2016. The goal is to have the Congress pass the statehood bill and have the President sign it. After all of this, Washington, D.C., would become a state, with the official name State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth—Washington, D.C., for short–and residents would have full representation in the House and Senate. Douglass refers to Frederick Douglass, a former slave who was the leading black abolitionist and supporter of equal rights for blacks during the 19th century. Furthermore, he resided in Washington, D.C., for the last 25 years of his life.
To avoid violating the Constitution’s District Clause, a two-square-mile federal enclave would remain separate from the new state. The statehood bill, the Washington, D.C., Admission Act of 2019, H.R. 51, reads: “The commonwealth shall consist of all District territory, with specified exclusions for federal buildings and monuments, including the principal federal monuments, the White House, the Capitol Building, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, and the federal executive, legislative, and judicial office buildings located adjacent to the Mall and the Capitol Building.” This area would remain as the District of Columbia and serve as the seat of government for the United States. The much-reduced District would be drawn to exclude any residents, but should anyone reside there in the future, they would be eligible to vote by absentee ballot in their last state of residence.
Furthermore, one section of the bill would expedite procedures to have a constitutional amendment repealing the 23rd Amendment, which gave Washington residents the right to vote for President. That would be necessary to do because otherwise both the new State of Washington, D.C., and the much-reduced Washington, D.C., would each have three electoral votes.
Repealing this amendment, however, would be a very lengthy and laborious process, as Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute pointed out in his testimony to Congress on this subject. Pilon maintained: “Congress presumes in this section that it can undo what it took a constitutional amendment to do. . .. The word ‘expedited’ (to say nothing of the procedures that follow) speaks volumes about what is going on here. This bill cannot stand unless the 23rd Amendment is repealed by the provisions of Article V of the Constitution. But the chances of that are infinitesimally small. As we saw when an amendment to afford greater representation for the District was put before the nation in 1978, only 16 states had signed on by the time the allotted period for ratification had concluded in 1985. Outside the Beltway there is little support for even that kind of change.”
While Pilon makes a devastating attack on this virtually ignored portion of H.R. 51, this does not mean that a Democratic Congress would not ignore this conundrum—as would the mainstream media–and give statehood to Washington, D.C. That both Washingtons could end up having electoral votes, if repeal of the 23rd Amendment should fail, is given hardly any attention. One pro-statehood article doesn’t see much wrong with this possibility, writing that “there is no conflict between H.R. 51 and the 23rd Amendment — even if the bill leads to an understandably peculiar result.” Similarly, according to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers: “H.R. 51/S. 631 is not at odds with Twenty-Third Amendment, which provides the District with three electoral votes. While the Twenty-Third Amendment raises important policy considerations (e.g., the provision of three electoral votes to a small number of residents in the remaining District, including the President and their family), it does not render H.R. 51/S. 631 unconstitutional, as it prescribes neither a particular form nor population for the District.”
Aside from the possibility of two Washingtons having electoral votes, the State of Washington, D.C., would be an anomaly because of its much smaller size compared to other states, which could lead to negative ramifications. While the population of Washington, D.C., may be larger in population than two states–Wyoming and Vermont–twenty other U.S. cities are larger in population than Washington, D.C., and 78 counties exceed Washington’s population (if we give it a generous 800,000). And the smallest state in area—Rhode Island—is almost 18 times Washington’s size. (Rhode Island is 1,214 square miles.) And if Washington, D.C., became a state, it would set a precedent to transform a great number of cities, counties, and other entities with comparable populations into states.
While Washingtonians deserve full voting rights, there is no reason for the small entity to be considered a state which would have two members of the U.S. Senate. Now what is to be done, to slightly paraphrase Lenin. The most reasonable approach, which has historical precedence, would be to return to Maryland most of the area that Maryland donated for the capital city. The fact that this was done before by Congress when it retroceded land to Virginia shows that it is allowable. This approach has been mentioned a number of times with leading current proponent David Krucoff, a D.C. commercial real-estate executive.
Krucoff’s plan somewhat resembles the D.C. government’s plan for statehood. Like that plan, Krucoff’s has a comparable federal enclave comprised of the Capitol, White House, Supreme Court, the Mall, and key monuments. The receded territory would become the city of Washington in a new Douglass County, Maryland—the two would be co-extensive. This would give the same voting rights to Washington citizens as the citizens of other states possess, which is what they have said they have lacked. In short, D.C. citizens deserve full voting rights but not the right to have their own miniscule state.
Polls show that residents of the District of Columbia would much prefer to be a state as opposed to being part of Maryland or keeping the status quo. But the decision should not be—and, of course, is not–theirs alone since it affects all the other states. And a nationwide Gallup poll in July 2019 found “a clear majority of 64 percent don’t think the nation’s capital should attain statehood, compared to 29 percent who support the idea.” This opposition has not changed much for the past ten years.
Statehood advocates realize that since Republicans control the Senate and the presidency and are completely against giving, Washington, D.C., statehood. Consequently, this could not take place until after the 2020 elections. Should the Democrats gain control of both branches of Congress and the Presidency, it is likely that D.C. statehood would prevail unless the Supreme Court should strike it down, and, while a majority of the judges are considered conservative, it is doubtful that they would have the courage to do this even if they believed it should be done.
Statehood for Washington, D.C., is only the start of what the more radical Democrats are looking forward to. If they controlled all branches of the government, they would create a number of states that would guarantee their control of the government forever. Democrats are not only hoping to achieve statehood for Washington, D.C., but are also looking to add Puerto Rico, and a recent Gallup Poll shows that two-thirds of Americans support statehood for Puerto Rico.
There is currently a bill in the House to make Puerto Rico a state that does not require a referendum of Puerto Rican citizens, a past referendum being considered sufficient. Although it could pass in the current Democrat-controlled House, it has l ittle chance of becoming law during this Congress since the Republican-controlled Senate and White House are expected to oppose the measure.
However, in the 2020 election, it is quite likely that the Democrats will carry the Senate and the Presidency as well as retaining the House. Thus, Democrats will be able to give statehood to the Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and thus have four solid Democratic votes in the Senate. Geoffrey Skelley writes in FiveThirtyEight, a website that focuses on opinion poll analysis (June 5, 2019): “One of their [Democrats’] motivations is the future of the U.S. Senate, which is currently biased toward the Republican Party. The logic goes that if Democrats can get unified control of the federal government after the 2020 election, they could push through statehood for both, adding four more seats to the Senate, and all four would likely be Democratic leaning.”
Skelley continues: “Brian Schatz of Hawaii recently tweeted that American Samoa and Guam should get voting representation in Congress along with D.C. and Puerto Rico. Statehood for Guam might seem outlandish — as of the 2010 census, it had about 160,000 people, much less than even the least-populous current state, Wyoming, which was home to 560,000 people. But some states the GOP brought into the union during the late 19th century had far fewer people than the average House district. Nevada was particularly egregious — it became a state in 1864 but had an estimated population of only about 21,000 people, 17 percent of the average House district at the time . . . As of 2010, the average House district had about 710,000 people, so Guam’s population would be equivalent to about 22 percent of the average district, comparably larger than Nevada’s in 1864. If Democrats could get full control, were willing to sacrifice the filibuster and really wanted to go all out, pursuing statehood for all U.S. territories might be an end that would justify the incredibly incendiary means.”
Nevada was smaller than several other territories at that time and it became a state without confirmation by Congress. This was pushed by President Abraham Lincoln since Nevada was a pro-Republican state and Lincoln believed he needed every electorai vote he could get in the 1864 election to remain president and control Congress. It should be noted that Lincoln often ignored the Constitution during the Civil War, such as having people in Union states jailed for opposing the war. And during World War II, Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps. Wartime actions should not set precedents for peacetime, for if that were the case the U.S. would be close to becoming a totalitarian country.
David Farris, professor of political science at Roosevelt University wrote an article titled “A ferocious plan for Democrats to reconquer America, ” contending the “Democrats should go much further and artfully filet the progressive stronghold of California into seven or more pieces, thereby giving Democrats an insurmountable strategic advantage in the U.S. Senate and making it less likely that another Republican will ever capture the White House with a minority of the popular vote.”
Todd N. Tucker, a fellow of the left-wing Roosevelt Institute, wrote in Politico this year an article titled, “Give Nonstates Full Congressional Representation,” the object of which is to change America. He wrote: “More than 4 million Americans live in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Washington, D.C. Yet none of them has a vote in Congress. Native Americans, likewise, lack designated representation in Congress, in violation of U.S. treaty commitments made centuries ago. Giving full representation to all these groups would empower millions of disempowered citizens, more faithfully represent the modern electorate and perhaps even help shake Congress out of its current state of gridlock.
“How would it work? In the House, the territories and D.C. already have one nonvoting delegate each; these delegates would merely need to be upgraded to voting members. Natives could find a model in New Zealand, where Maori citizens can opt into a separate voting roll and elect Maori representatives to Parliament, or we could allow Natives to vote twice—once for the Native seats and once in their home districts. Under current district sizes, Puerto Rico would get five representatives, and Natives would get four. As a whole, these moves would expand the House by only 3 percent (from 435 to 449 members). Where the effect would be felt the most is in the Senate, where each of these seven entities, like the rest of the states, would get two senators.
“My own projections show that adding 14 new senators from these majority nonwhite entities would make the Senate become racially representative of the overall U.S. population much sooner than would otherwise be the case. This shift could lead to policy outcomes that would benefit the country as it becomes increasingly diverse: A wealth of social science research shows that legislators’ race and class identities affect how they legislate. Other than D.C., these senators would be representing populations that have lower per-person incomes than the existing 50 states. And Washington, D.C., and the territories are relatively low-elevation and thus at greater risk of climate change. Compare this with Wyoming (white, relatively high elevation) or West Virginia (white, highly dependent on carbon production) or Delaware (white, home to credit card companies), and one can imagine that these new senators could help to jolt the Senate toward quicker action on climate change, inequality and reparations.”
Tucker ends his article by stating, “Full congressional representation seeks to hold the United States to this standard and to its own foundational ideals—democracy within a federalist republican structure—for the multiracial democracy we are, rather than the white colonizer of brown lands we once were.”
As is apparent, there is much more riding on D.C. statehood beyond giving its inhabitants full voting rights. If the Democrats in the 2020 election retain a majority in the House and win the Senate along with the Presidency, all of which is quite conceivable with the current economy, and almost a certainty if the economy goes south. And should the Democrats triumph at the polls, a number of new Democratic states are apt to be created which will facilitate the transformation of the United States.