Lessons in Political Expedience: 

The Emerging Debate Around Statehood for

Washington, D.C.

Christian Matos | June 2021

Looking eastward from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C. (2007)

D

rive through the nation’s capital for five minutes and you will notice the tongue-in-cheek reference Washington, D.C. license plates bear. The plates read “Taxation Without Representation,” as an homage to one of the first rallying cries of the American Revolution and as commentary on the District’s own political circumstances. Currently, Washington, D.C. has only one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.

 

 

The Washington, D.C. Admission Act, otherwise known as H.R. 51, has recently made it through the House of Representatives with a 216 to 208 vote along party lines. The latest action on H.R. 51 was its reception in the Senate on April 22, 2021. The Senate has yet to move on the bill or assign it to a committee. 

 

The failure to move on the bill is not the only thing that is currently threatening the likelihood of another star being added to Old Glory: there is much contention about how the District of Columbia could be admitted into the Union, and questions remain as to whether there are enough votes in the Senate to send the Washington, D.C. Admission Act to the President’s desk. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has already expressed his opposition to the legislation, an opposition which, for all intents and purposes, eliminates any possibility of the bill getting passed. H.R. 51 lacks support from the GOP and, due to the balance of power in the Senate, if either party wants to get a bill through the Senate they need all of their members to vote with the party. Senator Manchin falls into the category of individuals who support D.C. statehood, but not via congressional legislation: Manchin has stated that if Congress desires to make Washington, D.C. a state it should propose a constitutional amendment to be voted upon. 

 

Should H.R. 51 be taken seriously, there still remain questions on whether or not such legislation could even get passed. The Senate is currently split evenly among Republicans and Democrats, which means Vice President Kamala Harris must break all ties. However, this split also means that the bill could get filibustered to death: the Democratic Party does not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and this would not be the first time a D.C. statehood bill died at the hands of the GOP in the Senate. When the Senate was still controlled by the GOP, a similar bill to H.R. 51 made it to the Senate but it died before it was ever moved on. If the Democratic Party is able to sway Senator Manchin back to their side on this issue, the chance of H.R. 51 getting to the president’s desk greatly increases.

 

Statehood or Not? 

 

The District of Columbia, also referred to as the seat of government, is home to 712,000 Americans, several monuments, and the three branches of the federal government. Despite the 712,000 Americans that call it home there still remains extensive debate as to whether or not Washington, D.C. should become a state, with many arguments being advanced that both support and oppose the idea of the District becoming the 51st state.

 

Congress has the express authority under the Constitution to legislate with regard to the District, yet its residents have no voting representation in Congress. Since the District is not a state, there is no representation for Washingtonians in the Senate, and the one representative that the District of Columbia has in the House does not have full voting privileges  

 

At its very core, the movement for D.C. statehood is predicated on the idea that Washingtonians do not have enough of a say in the legislation passed in the Capitol that pertains to the District. The idea of taxation without representation is un-American and antithetical to the American tradition of democratic representation. The D.C. statehood movement holds that the District should be entitled to the same representation that all the other states enjoy. Furthermore, supporters of the movement cite that D.C. and its residents share all the same responsibilities as those of a state, without any of the benefits. D.C. residents serve in the armed forces and pay federal taxes without representation in Congress or the independence that states enjoy. Congress routinely interferes with the District’s affairs when it comes to budgets and local policy. 

 

More recently,  events that took place at the Capitol on January 6th have also shown many supporters of D.C. statehood why it’s time to become a state. Currently Washington, D.C. cannot deploy its own National Guard; it must wait for the President to advise deployment into the District. Many supporters of D.C. statehood cite the ability to call in the National Guard as a privilege that states have that could have helped D.C. prepare for or even prevent the storming of the Capitol. 

 

The coronavirus pandemic has also shown why D.C. should become a state in some people’s eyes: since D.C. is not a state it was not entitled to the same funding that the states were offered under the CARES Act, which could have greatly helped the District with its recovery from COVID-19.

 

Outside of the privileges and the voting representation that would be gained from D.C. statehood, supporters of statehood cite three additional factors: size, public support, and financial stability. Washington, D.C. currently has more residents than Vermont and Wyoming and is comparable in population size to Delaware, which debunks the idea that D.C. is too small to even qualify as a congressional district. The public also greatly supports D.C. statehood: 86% of Washingtonians voted in favor of statehood in a 2016 referendum. Furthermore, the most important factor for transitioning to a state is whether or not the newly formed state will be able to handle its finances. Washington, D.C. would be more than able to handle such a transition. Currently, D.C. residents pay the highest federal income tax per capita in the country and pay more in federal income tax than residents from 22 other states, without having a say in how those dollars are allocated.

 

People who oppose the idea of the nation’s capital becoming the 51st state cite theoretical arguments about the political instability that could arise if official federal buildings are within a state’s borders. The main source for this argument is Federalist 43. James Madison argued that the federal government must have complete authority within the seat of government because, without such authority, “The public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity.” Opponents of D.C. statehood cite Federalist 43 as a warning that if the seat of government were to be located within a state, political squabbles between the federal government and the state government could arise. Furthermore, there might be disputes and gray areas regarding the realms of power possessed by the state and federal government on many issues. Thus, there could be a situation where the president would have to answer to a potential Governor of Washington, D.C.  

 

Furthermore, Madison mentions the possibility of favoritism, writing, “Dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of government for protection in the exercise of their duty might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence.” In other words, dependence of federal officials on the “state” of Washington, D.C. might result in favoritism. This is completely possible, as political relationships have become increasingly important due to increasing levels of partisan polarization among government officials. Political favors have also become more widespread, and some fear that D.C. already maintains too much political influence.

 

Fortunately for the supporters of D.C. statehood, The Washington, D.C. Admission Act would only turn the residential parts of D.C. into a state. Per the language of H.R. 51, the area of D.C. that includes federal buildings (the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court included) shall be designated as the capital and will not be part of the new state.

 

A Question of Politics 

 

Like all policy-related disagreements, the current debate about D.C. statehood is heavily influenced by the tentacles of politics and partisanship. Both political parties have their own views regarding whether D.C. should be a state, with support for statehood primarily coming from the Democratic Party. President Joe Biden has already endorsed H.R. 51 and the sponsor for the bill in the House was D.C’s very own Eleanor Holmes, the District’s non-voting delegate.  

 

Supporters of D.C. statehood pitch D.C. statehood as a solution to voter disenfranchisement. Washington, D.C.’s population is 47% black and has historically been a minority-majority city. If admitted to the Union it would be the only plurality-black state in the Union. Many ardent supporters of D.C. statehood will cite the lack of voting power in Congress as an undemocratic mechanism that is disenfranchising minority groups within the District. Following this same logic, several supporters of D.C. statehood have labeled its opposition as “racist,” claiming that all the constitutional and ethical arguments about turning the District into a state are a facade to hide a racist agenda. Lack of voting power does exist in the District, but not entirely; while D.C. does not have Senators or voting members in the House, it does have electoral power in presidential elections thanks to the 23rd Amendment. D.C. is entitled to the same amount of electoral votes as the smallest state (three electoral votes).

 

Those who oppose statehood often push the narrative that D.C. statehood is a partisan move to gain two more votes for the Democratic Party in the Senate and one more vote in the House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.’s voting history is largely why this narrative is pushed: the District has never given more than 20% of its vote to a GOP candidate in a presidential election, as Richard Nixon barely got to 20% in the 1972 election. This is why many who oppose D.C. statehood have labeled the idea as an attempt to establish a “Liberal Enclave" on the Potomac River.  

 

Should D.C. be admitted to the Union as a state, the Democratic Party—barring major political realignment within the District—would gain two more votes in the Senate and one more vote in the House of Representatives. With the current balance of power in the Senate being split at 50-50, the admission of two more senators, who will most likely be Democrats, would give the Democratic Party a definitive majority in the Senate, and Senate Democrats would no longer have to rely on Vice President Harris to cast any tie-breaking votes, along with having some wiggle room in votes along party lines. Furthermore, the number of votes needed to invoke cloture in the Senate would increase to 61 (from 60) and in the House of Representatives, as the Democrats would expand their majority by one. These political implications are why H.R. 51 has no support from members of the GOP. 

 

If the “political power move” narrative is to be believed, this would not be the first time a new state was added to the Union for strictly political reasons. The main opponents of admitting a new state into the Union now, the Republican Party, pulled off a political power move when the Dakotas were admitted into the Union in 1889. When the Territory of Dakota was going to be admitted into the Union, it was initially supposed to be admitted as one state, but members of the GOP were able to divide the territory into two states (North and South Dakota) so that they could gain more seats in Congress.

 

The Pathway to Statehood: Legislation or Amendment?

 

Another question in the debate surrounding H.R. 51 is focused upon whether Congress even has the power to declare D.C. a state. Those who believe Congress does not have the power to legislate a state into existence cite the 23rd Amendment and Article I of the Constitution, while others will cite the way recent states (i.e Alaska and Hawaii) have been admitted into the Union as reason enough to support the notion that Congress can create a new state.

 

The 23rd Amendment gave electors to Washington, D.C. for use in presidential elections. Should H.R. 51 be signed into law, the current land known as Washington, D.C. would be split in two: The Washington Douglass Commonwealth and area to be designated as “the capital.”  H.R. 51 has the potential to create a geographic mess along the Potomac, as the newly formed state would be entitled to presidential and vice-presidential electors, and at the same time, the new “capital” would still be entitled to three electoral college votes under the 23rd Amendment.

 

Supporters of the path using an amendment to admit D.C. claim that if Congress looks to enact legislation to make D.C. a state, the 23rd Amendment would still apply, meaning that three electors must still be allotted to the shrunken piece of land still designated as “the capital.” By simply modifying statutes, the new “seat of government” would be much smaller than the original capital, but would possess an absurdly outsized degree of voting power. Functionally, this would mean that the National Mall would have three electoral votes. 

 

Therefore, within any legislation making D.C a state there would have to be a provision that the new seat of government would not have any electoral votes. This would constitute legislation that supersedes the Constitution, specifically violating the 23rd Amendment decree allotting three electors to the capital. Since the Supremacy Clause clearly states that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and that no law can supersede constitutional authority, many detractors of the legislative path cite it as unconstitutional, hence why many, including Joe Manchin (D-WV) believe The Washington, D.C. Admission Act could be challenged in the Supreme Court. In order to avoid a Supreme Court challenge, an amendment to the Constitution must be passed.

 

The provisions of H.R. 51 establish that an amendment to the Constitution should be passed: not an amendment concerning D.C. statehood, but rather an amendment repealing the 23rd Amendment. The passage of such an amendment would prevent the odd situation wherein both the newly formed state and the seat of government both have electoral votes. It should be noted that H.R. 51 provides no timetable for the proposal or ratification of such an amendment. 

 

Even if Congress can draw up an amendment admitting parts of Washington, D.C. to the Union as a state, this is not a guarantee that the District will see statehood. Once the amendment is drawn up it must then be sent to the individual states to ratify, and there is no guarantee that such ratification will occur. Any amendment would need 38 out of the 50 states in the Union to ratify it, and the last Amendment that was proposed only got 16 states to sign on. At a very base level, there exists a higher likelihood that a bill would get through the Senate than enough states ratifying an amendment, which may also be a reason as to why so many people support legislating the 51st state into existence.

 

Despite significant criticism of the legislation path there remains heavy support for H.R. 51 as the official way for D.C. to achieve statehood. 39 legal scholars from universities across the country signed a letter to Congress addressing the claims that the legislative branch did not have the power to pass a bill declaring Washington, D.C. a state. These legal scholars cited the Admissions Clause of the Constitution as Congress’s express authority to enact legislation allowing a state to join the Union via at least one act of Congress. Furthermore, these scholars also believe that the courts would be unwilling to attempt to interfere with Congress’s power to admit states into the Union. This a bold claim considering how divisive the topic is and that the GOP would almost immediately look to challenge it.

 

D.C. Has Always Been Special

 

The seat of government in this country has, is, and always will be a special place. The framers intended for it to exist in this odd gray area in between “state” and “territory” as a way to curb its political influence. Perhaps D.C.’s political influence has outgrown its pseudo-state status, but one must ask if this is something even worth rewarding. Regardless of whether or not D.C. should become a state, it appears movement on H.R. 51 or the possible proposal of an amendment seem unlikely until both sides of the aisle can truly gather themselves on this issue. And in today’s chaotic, culturally divided environment, even the simplest of governmental tasks may prove impossible.

Christian Matos is a rising junior at American University studying Political Science. His writing interests include constitutional law and Supreme Court jurisprudence. Outside of MC, Christian enjoys sports and cooking.