House Democrats passed the Washington, D.C. Admission Act last Friday to begin the process of officially admitting the District of Columbia (D.C.) into the Union as a state. It is likely to be rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Trump has threatened to veto the bill should it arrive on his desk anyway. But why would Republicans not want to give statehood to an area that has become symbolic with the United States as a whole? The area is one of the most recognizable places in the whole of the country and is home to the most powerful leader on the planet.
To fully understand why the issue of representation and statehood for D.C. is so contentious, we must recognize that it is not a new issue. Congressional hearings on giving D.C. representation first took place in 1921, when Senator Wesley Livsey (a Republican no less) wrote a congressional report, advising that D.C. residents should be treated as citizens of a state, rather than a district by any future congressional laws.
The District of Columbia finally received voting rights in presidential elections in 1961, thanks to the passing of the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment gives D.C. the right to Electoral College representation based on the size of its population, but no more Electoral College votes than the least populous state. D.C.’s Electoral College vote will therefore always be held at three, unless the minimum Electoral College vote is raised, which would require significant adjustments to the fundamentals of both Houses of Congress. D.C. has contributed three Electoral College votes to every presidential election since 1964.
Once voting representation had been achieved, focus then shifted towards full statehood. Bills for congressional representation for D.C. made it past the House committee stage (but no further) in 1967 and 1972. The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment was even sent to the states for ratification in 1978. Unfortunately for D.C. residents, time caught up with the amendment and it expired in 1985, twenty-two ratifications short of the thirty-eight needed.
Bills continued to make it out of House committees for debate on the House floor through the 1980s and 1990s, and the first full House vote took place in 1993. Republicans at the time held the House majority and defeated the bill, 277 votes to 153. D.C. residents even voted to hold a constitutional convention in 1982, in order to draft a state constitution and to prepare for admittance to the Union, in a move harking back to the 1780s and the formation of the United States.
Since 1993, bills to grant statehood to the District of Columbia have been introduced in Congress every year, but have been killed before a vote every time. In 2016, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called a statehood referendum in the district. It offered a conceptual state constitution and proposed that the mayor of the district would become the state’s governor. On the same day as the 2016 presidential election, D.C. residents voted in the referendum. The result? 86% of residents voted in favor of D.C. gaining statehood.
Then came Eleanor Holmes Norton. She is one of the delegates who is chosen by D.C. voters to lobby Congress for statehood. These delegates are allowed to speak on the floor and serve on House committees, but they are not allowed to vote on other bills in Congress and are not recognized as Senators or Representatives. In March 2017, she introduced the District of Columbia Admission Act to the House of Representatives (the same bill was introduced to the Senate in May 2017). There it sat on committee desks until July of this year. D.C. has been at the center of racial tensions after Donald Trump used the National Guard to clear peaceful protestors for a photoshoot at St. John’s Church on the edge of Lafayette Park, which sits directly behind the White House.
In response, the Democrat-controlled House passed the D.C. Admission Act, largely along party lines by 232 votes to 180. The House version of the Act would admit D.C. into the Union as the fifty-first state but change “D.C.” from “District of Columbia” to “Douglass Commonwealth”, after Frederick Douglass, one of D.C.’s most famous residents.
But there are challenges to granting D.C. statehood. For one, there is a question over whether the capital of the United States should be allowed to become a state at all. Historians point to Federalist 43, written as part of the wider Federalist collection of essays published in the late 1770s and early 1780s. James Madison wrote in Federalist 43 that:
“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.”
Essentially what Madison is arguing is that the national capital had to be different from states in general, so that it can execute the role of the national capital. In Madison’s mind, the role of the national capital and the role of a state are simply incompatible.
But there are also reasons why modern circumstances will more than likely prevent the D.C. Admissions Act getting any further than a vote in the U.S. Senate. Republicans are wary that they may lose their Senate majority in the 2020 elections. While it may seem unlikely, there is a path to Democrats taking control of the Senate, and therefore Congress in its entirety.
Granting D.C. statehood would mean that two extra Senators and one extra Representative would be added to Congress. It is well known that D.C. is one of the most Democratic areas in the entire country, mostly thanks to its large African-American population. It is therefore likely that any elected officials in D.C. would be Democrats. Republicans nervous about clinging on to their slim majority are not going to allow two new Democratic Senators to be elected and reduced that majority further.
For now, while Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress (and the presidency too), statehood for D.C. is a non-starter. But we should bear in mind the words of D.C. Mayor Bowser, who said this in a press release earlier this week in response to the passing of the D.C. Admissions Act in the House:
“It is true that DC is more brown and more liberal than many other states. But the issue of taxation without representation was settled more than 200 years ago through the Declaration of Independence, and disenfranchising more than 700,000 taxpaying Americans is wrong no matter our politics or demographics. Who we elect is our business, and denying us statehood based on who we might send to Congress is both undemocratic and un-American.”