The 51st State: What DC Statehood Would Mean for the Country
President Obama stirred up an old debate recently by becoming the first sitting president to endorse statehood for the District of Columbia. Obama expressed his full support: “I’m in DC, so I’m for it…Folks in DC pay taxes like everybody else. They contribute to the overall well being of the country like everybody else. There has been a long movement to get DC statehood, and I’ve been for it for quite some time.”
Here’s what you need to know about Washington DC’s contentious battle for statehood, what it would mean for District residents, and what impact it would have on the country.
Why was the District of Columbia created?
To understand the arguments for statehood, you have to understand the history of Washington, DC. The District of Columbia was specifically created to house the federal government. The authors of the Constitution wanted to house the federal government in its own jurisdiction after witnessing the problems of having the nation’s temporary capital in Philadelphia. The decision was made in 1787 following an incident in which the governor of Pennsylvania refused to disperse rioters threatening Congress in Philadelphia. The framers did not want the federal government to be subject to any decisions of a specific state or governor. So, the delegates wrote Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution to outline Congress’ control over the district:
“[The Congress shall have 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.”
Congress moved to a new federal capital in 1800, and the District still stands today on land ceded by Maryland. Residents of the District face a number of unique circumstances because it is not a state.
Originally, DC residents were barred from voting for president. It was not until 1961 that the passage of the 23rd Amendment finally secured three electoral votes for the District. DC residents also elect one non-voting member to the House of Representatives.
The District of Columbia has operated under a system of Home Rule since 1973 as a way to better govern local affairs. Home rule means that DC is allowed a local government, including a directly elected mayor and city council. Still, Congress has the ultimate authority and the power to overturn any laws passed by the local government.
Why do people push for DC statehood?
Right to Vote
Residents of DC express outrage that they pay federal and local taxes, are subject to the same laws as everyone else, fight in wars, and serve on juries, yet they lack the same Congressional representation. The argument is also made that this disenfranchisement comes from a legacy of racism aimed at the District’s majority African-American population. Those in favor of statehood want the full rights of being an American citizen, which includes full representation in Congress as well as full control over local affairs. In addition to lacking voting power, DC’s representative in Congress is denied a federal salary and an office. License plates in DC decry residents’ lack of status with the slogan “Taxation without Representation.” Watch President Obama’s remarks on DC statehood below:
Many citizens are fed up with the limitations of DC’s Home Rule. Since Congress can overturn any law, it has exerted its power on a number of issues passed by DC residents. Congress has intervened to restrict abortions, to prevent restrictions on firearm ownership, and even to control marijuana issues. Congress has also barred DC from using local tax dollars on specific things, such as statehood advocacy and needle exchange programs.
Citizens claim they do not have enough financial resources to pay for high-quality public services. Although DC is not a state, it has all the financial burdens of one. It provides local services, like public schools and a police force, but it also provides services typically dealt with at the state level, like mental health and Medicaid. DC has limited taxing powers. The District cannot tax income earned within its borders by non-residents, even though all other states have that power. Two-thirds of income in the District is made by people who do not live in the District, yet they pay no income tax. Additionally, the federal government, embassies, and non-profits that occupy most of DC pay no property, sales, or income taxes. The small size of the city and disproportionate number of low-income workers with higher needs for public services strain the District financially. Still, DC residents pay the highest federal taxes per capita.
Washington DC’s fast-growing population of approximately 650,000 — larger than Wyoming or Vermont — is large enough to make it a state. According to the Washington Peace Center, DC as a state could bring in more than $2 billion a year in additional revenue. This would allow the local government to cut taxes and better fund schools and services. Freeing itself from Congressional oversight would also make the district more efficient. Watch more about the DC statehood movement below.
The 16-day federal government shutdown during Fall 2013 illustrated issues with DC dependency on federal funds and approval. DC Mayor Grey did not shut down local services but suspended some payments so the city could remain operational. Mayor Grey warned that vital city services were dangerously close to ending as the city’s emergency funds were depleted. Allowing DC the autonomy of statehood would prevent these issues in the event of a federal government shutdown.
Legally, how would statehood be achieved?
Despite President Obama’s supportive statement, making DC a state is unfortunately not within his power. There are a couple of avenues that the District of Columbia could take to obtain statehood.
There is some debate as to whether an amendment could make DC an official state, but it could definitely give DC’s residents much greater rights and further define the area of the federal district. Two-thirds of Congress would have to approve a matching constitutional amendment. Alternately, two-thirds of state legislatures could call a Constitutional Convention. The amendment would then be sent to the states for ratification by three-fourths. Naturally this process would be very difficult. A proposed amendment in 1985 to give DC more voting power was only ratified by 16 states in the allotted seven-year span. Further, critics point out that any constitutional amendment could later be repealed.
Article 4, Section 3 of the Constitution outlines the creation of new states.
“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
Under this section, an act of Congress could make DC its own state with a simple majority vote and signature from the President. This was the same process followed by Hawaii and Alaska as recently as 1959. There is some question as to whether Maryland would need to approve statehood, since DC was formed on land from Maryland. Still, bills are introduced to Congress nearly every year, but none has been brought to a vote since 1993. Most Congressional leaders like the idea of admitting states as pairs, so there is a good chance any vote to make DC a state would also include a bid of statehood for Puerto Rico.
Proposals for giving DC Congressional representation are much more common than bills for complete statehood. These bills have not been met with success. Some contend that giving District residents the right to vote may not even be within Congress’ power.
What are the current proposals?
Previous campaigns for statehood have referred to the new state as “New Columbia,” and the name is still associated with the movement today. The New Columbia Admissions Act was introduced in 2013 before failing to make it out of committee. The Act closely follows the proposed constitution ratified by DC voters in 1982. The plan would create a new state while still keeping a much smaller area of DC a federal district. The area of the federal district would shrink substantially, but would include all important federal buildings like the Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court. The Constitution sets an upper limit on the size of the District at 10 square miles, but no lower limit is set. All of the other residential land currently in DC would then become the 51st state. New Columbia would be granted the same rights as any other state in the Union.
To advance its agenda, the District of Columbia still selects members to a shadow congressional delegation that lobbies Congress to grant statehood and voting rights. The positions were authorized by a “state” constitution in 1982 authorized by voters, but this delegation is still not recognized by Congress. Numerous groups in DC continue to lobby for statehood. Watch DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton speak on statehood below.
What are the arguments against statehood?
In Federalist No. 43, James Madison argued that the District of Columbia needed to be independent for maintenance and safety concerns. Madison wrote,
“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.”
Arguments against statehood today follow similar lines. Americans are concerned that the federal government would be dependent on a single state to cover its security and general operations. With such great power, a state could restrict the federal government in ways that would not be beneficial to the rest of the nation. However, the plan to keep important governmental buildings as a federal district largely mitigates these concerns.
The uniqueness of the DC area makes statehood very difficult politically. Some of the arguments opponents have:
- Similar to all states with relatively small populations, DC’s small size and population would give it an unfair influence in politics.
- The liberal area would be a stronghold for Democrats, and DC would always send Democrats to Congress.
- The interests of the District would be dominated by the federal government, since it would be the state’s largest employer by far.
- The state would be the only one without rural residents. This means the representatives would share none of the interests held by non-urban areas.
- A state could enact a commuter tax on non-residents who come to the state to work. Such a tax is currently banned under Home Rule.
- The constitutional question of whether the state of Maryland would have to consent to the new state, since the district was formed on land granted by Maryland.
- Some people flat out do not want to witness a strange-looking flag with 51 stars. But not to worry, numerous 51-star flags have already been designed, and they don’t look too bad.
Are there any other alternatives to statehood?
Most citizens in favor of DC statehood oppose settling for anything less. Some propose bills to grant voting representation to members of DC, such as simply allowing DC’s representative in the House of Representatives the power to vote. Others worry these laws could be undone by the next Congress — and Congress may not even have the authority to make such a law.
Others propose some sort of tie with Maryland. This could mean parts of DC being given back to Maryland. However, neither Maryland nor DC really want to merge. A less drastic solution is Congress restoring the voting rights of District residents by allowing them to vote as a part of Maryland while maintaining the integrity of the District. Still, residents want voting as well as increased autonomy over local affairs.
Issues over DC statehood will not soon be resolved unless residents can be better provided some method of true representation. Most recently in the never-ending saga of DC residents, issues arose with DC driver’s licenses not being considered a valid form of ID by uninformed TSA agents. The good news is DC statehood would likely make the lives of TSA agents much easier.
The District of Columbia: Statehood