“No Taxation without Representation”
The state license plates of over 600,000 Washington, DC residents display this slogan. Every car serves as a reminder that the city that houses the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court is unable to fully participate in the democracy it harbors. DC citizens recently voted in favor of a referendum to make DC a state under the name of “New Columbia.” With the mayor’s backing and great democratic support, many activists are rallying to make Washington, DC America’s 51st state via a constitutional amendment.
Today, Washington, DC is given no voting representation in Congress. Because DC is recognized as a federal district rather than a state, the District is represented by a delegate who is not allowed to vote on the House floor; the delegate is only allowed to vote on procedural matters within congressional committees. DC is granted no representation within the Senate, even though its population exceeds that of Vermont and Wyoming. In the 1980s, the city created three more positions within Congress: two shadow senator positions and one shadow US House position. But these representatives have no congressional power and serve only as unpaid advocates to promote DC statehood.
Popular misconceptions posit that DC residents, due to the city’s political nature, are mostly foreigners or people from other states. There does not need to be substantial representation as these people are represented elsewhere. However, most people who live in DC are actually permanent residents – that is, DC houses nearly 600,000 democratically unaccounted for people. Moreover, opponents of DC statehood argue that making the city of Washington, DC a state would set the precedent to make New York City and Los Angeles their own states as well due to their large populations. However, DC statehood is not simply about population, but about voting rights – residents in large cities like New York City and Los Angeles already maintain voting power through their respective states so there would be no need to create a new state for them.
Even though DC has neither adequate representation within Congress nor full voting rights, in all other respects it is structured like a state, not simply a city. Along with most states, it issues driver’s licenses, unemployment compensation, food and drug inspection, lotteries, and professional licensure. In addition to having a larger population than two of the 50 states, Washington, DC has lost more residents to our country’s wars than 20 other states, revealing a patriotism in DC that many people choose to ignore.
Convincing arguments have been put forth that failing to recognize DC’s right to representation violates the Constitution. The 17th Amendment calls for equal representation within the Senate, Article 1 calls for equal representation within the House, and Article 4 grants the right to a republican form of government for the people. Congress is able to reverse any law that DC makes that they do not agree with, and has the power to change DC’s budget. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, DC pays taxes and is still not granted full voting power within Congress.
Though there seem to be clear violations of the Constitution by restricting DC statehood, there are also arguments that say D.C. statehood would be unconstitutional. This argument stems from Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution which states: “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 ….” Although the Article clearly states that the nation must have a capital under the control of the federal government, the 23rd Amendment has already challenged this narrative by allowing DC residents limited voting rights.
Furthermore, as shadow-Senator Strauss of the District points out, “as DC’s population continues to increase, the presence of the federal government in Washington continues to decrease.” The Constitution was built without women’s rights and with slavery as key components – it was meant to be changed with time. It is also constitutional to add a state to the United States as seen through Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union….” With these constitutional constraints, it would be necessary to pass a constitutional amendment in order to admit the District as a state, as it would need to provide an exception to Article 1, Section 8. To do so, an amendment may be proposed by the District to both the House and the Senate with a two-thirds majority vote in both. If the proposed amendment has passed through Congress, it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. After this process, DC can advocate for statehood with the assertion that it is entirely, and incontestably constitutional.
On the issue of taxes, DC citizens pay “state-like taxes,” or district taxes, which are then sent back to Congress to allocate the money to DC’s municipal budget. DC citizens pay taxes which amount to $5 billion per year; they have paid more than 22 states in federal taxes last year, and they paid the federal government $26.4 billion while only receiving $3.5 billion in return in 2014. Many people argue, however, that the District receives immense benefits from the federal government, such as contributing to Medicaid for 70 percent of the cost and assuming the cost of the District’s courts and convicted felons. With this in mind, many believe that the District should not be made a state as it is granted special benefits that other states are not.
Even with the federal government’s contributions to DC, they do not contribute to the District in the same way that the residents do, despite their significant use of land. As the city’s largest employer, the federal government does not pay property, sales, or income taxes, while using all of the city’s services. This also includes embassies, international institutions, and tax-exempt non-profits that populate the city. In addition, the federal government fails to compensate for large events which ‘shut the city down,’ like inaugurations. In 1997, as DC recovered from a financial crisis, the federal government slowly began to wean funding from the District and focused its efforts solely on the courts and Medicaid. In fact, today, the federal government only funds 25 percent of the District’s local budget. Though this percentage may seem generous, 8 other states receive as much or more aid than the District does. For example, the federal government provides 35 percent of Mississippi’s budget and 34 percent of Louisiana’s, even though these states do not have the same federal oversight as that of DC. The money DC is given comes with a number of provisions on how the city can spend the money, while other states that receive more aid are allowed to choose how they would like to spend the money independently of the federal government.
The idea that the federal government needs its own place should not take the priority over 670,000 citizens’ representation.
In addition to paying massive amounts of taxes to the federal government, the residents of DC also want to be a state. They want to be in control of their own destiny and have the ability to act politically within the government. Every resident has a stake in this idea of statehood: LGBTQ+ individuals, women, minorities, and even Republicans – they all deserve to have their voice heard by people who actually represent them.
There was a referendum in order to determine how much of DC’s population was in support of statehood, asking a series of questions regarding DC statehood: First, whether DC should be admitted as a state to the Union as “New Columbia;” second, if the constitution of New Columbia would be approved by the City Council; third, where the boundaries of New Columbia should lie; and fourth, whether they be guaranteed an elected representative within the federal government. The referendum passed with 79 percent of the voters casting votes in favor of the ballot measure. Mayor Bowser commented, “This is what I’ve heard from DC residents all over the city. … They want to be treated like every American. They want two senators. We need equality, and the only way to get there is with statehood.”
The idea of formally petitioning Congress to admit DC into the United States as the 51st state has significant historical precedence. For example, Tennessee, which was originally a territory, was admitted to the United States in 1796. Tennessee “drafted a constitution and held a referendum on whether it should ask Congress for admission to the union as a state.” Only a year later, Congress approved the request and Tennessee became the United States 16th state. Tennessee is the only state in the Union that did not follow the “constitutional and congressional route” to statehood. DC is following the same route of Tennessee by enacting the referendum through a residential vote – this has worked in the past and could work again for the District. Hawaii, which was approved as a state in 1959, is a relatively recent admittance. There is no gaping time frame in which the last state was approved, so approving DC would not be startling to the country, but rather a progression towards total representation.
Even though admitting DC as a state would grant equal representation and adhere to the Constitution, activists face strong opposition towards the admittance of the District. Many people against the addition of DC to the United States believe that it does not fall in line with the federalist beliefs that our country was founded on. As stated in Federalist Paper 43, DC was created as a neutral space for the federal government, without state involvement. The idea is that if DC was granted statehood, the 670,000 residents would suddenly have control over federal officials. If DC were a state, there is the fear that the residents would have unreasonable influence over officials due to their proximity to government officials. The founders had hoped that the capital would serve as a bubble to insulate them from intense controversy.
However, this ideology is outdated. The media spreads news nationwide at rapid speeds and to all reaches of the state. Furthermore, it is a lot easier to travel to DC today than it was in the 1800s. It may be an expense for the average citizen, but lobbyists are willing to pay for the flight or train to DC in order to exert their influence. Even though Virginians and Marylanders have an obvious geographic advantage over people from Wisconsin or California, the founders didn’t create a moat around DC shutting it off from statewide influence – the proximity argument has lost its value in today’s times.
Another argument for DC statehood stems from fear that if there was a bill that DC residents did not agree with, they could surround the Capitol or another building, preventing senators from voting and creating a riot. Would the DC authorities step in or not, as they are involved in the partisan issue? This fear of DC admittance arises from the “Mutiny of 1783” in which the Congress in Philadelphia was mobbed and senators had to flee to safety. However, this mob of people surrounding Congress over a controversial bill could happen today even without DC statehood. The admittance of DC as a state would not force them to surround Congress, but rather there would be less of a reason for them to now, because they are actually being represented within the Capitol. The idea that the federal government needs its own place should not take the priority over 600,000 citizens’ representation.
A solution posed towards the argument of DC statehood is the “retrocession” of DC to Maryland and Virginia. These states would simply take back the land it gave to create DC so that the citizens of DC are represented in Congress and are given equal voting rights. They would be represented by Maryland or Virginia congressmen and congresswomen and vote for Maryland or Virginia state laws. This idea initially seems to make sense – DC residents are given voting power and the country does not have to go through the long-winded process of adding another state. However, this retrocession would strip DC residents of their agency. DC residents have spent the last 227 years creating a culture unique to Washington, DC too valuable to be taken away and blended into another state.
Many of the opponents of DC statehood are Republicans, even though statehood itself is a conservative issue. Though Republicans tend to be proponents of state rights and individual liberties, granting DC statehood would undoubtedly add more Democratic representation to Congress. DC is, after all, ranked the most liberal “state” in the United States. However, this partisan reasoning should not outweigh the representation of thousands of individuals through disregarding the founding elements of republicanism.
In addition to these partisan concerns, many people also worry about practical issues with the addition of another state: changing the number of stars on the flag, songs, and all types of patriotic merchandise. However, these concerns are trivial in comparison to the larger issues that DC residents face. In fact, the economy would most likely grow with the increase in production of new merchandise. Further, it is important to acknowledge that before Hawaii was added in 1959, the flag only had 49 stars, changing multiple songs and merchandise. The United States survived that change less than 60 years ago – the country would survive now, too.
Even though it is clear that DC should gain statehood, it is very unlikely in the current political climate. The referendum was widely supported by DC residents, but it still must be approved by Congress. Congressional approval is unlikely in the current political environment, given the Republic-controlled House and Senate. DC statehood only truly stands a chance when the Democrats control the House and Senate, which at best, could occur in just under 2 years through the midterm elections. Until then, there is a slim chance that the United States will become a country of 51 states.
The fight for DC statehood will continue in order to guarantee equal representation for the District’s residents and those to come.