On March 29, 1961, the 23rd Amendment was ratified, granting the District of Columbia electors in the Electoral College. For the first time in the nation’s history, D.C. residents had some sort of representation in the federal government, even if only in presidential elections. In every contest since the ratification of the 23rd Amendment, D.C.’s three electoral votes have gone to the Democratic candidate—a statistic pertinent to the ongoing debate over potential statehood for the district.
In a 2016 referendum, 79 percent of D.C. voters supported a proposal that would split the district into a residential state and a small federal district for government buildings and monuments. This proposal now moves to Congress for consideration. Given the current political climate, success is an uphill battle.
While the general path to statehood is enumerated in the Constitution, the specific procedure and timeline has somewhat varied. Article IV, Section 3 gives Congress the power to admit new states but does not specify further. Typically, prospective states have petitioned Congress for an Enabling Act, which approves the drafting of a state constitution and an application for statehood. Upon completion, Congress considers whether or not to admit the new state. This process can take many years.
During the 2016 presidential election, both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came out in support of D.C. statehood. Support from the two leading Democratic candidates is not surprising—nor is opposition from the right. The late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts once described the argument against statehood as encompassed by the “four too’s:” the population of D.C. is “too urban, too black, too democratic and too liberal.” While this statement is controversial, it may also contain a kernel of truth: for example, Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich said that D.C. statehood is “just more votes in the Democratic party.”
Yet the Republican approach is murkier than it first appears. As a whole, Republicans have been opposed to D.C. statehood, but there is not unanimity on the question. In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” during the 2016 presidential campaign, now-President Donald Trump said that he supports “whatever’s best” for D.C. residents, including the possibility of statehood. Vice President Mike Pence has also shown support for D.C. statehood in the past: in 2007, he said that the lack of representation for D.C.’s residents a “historic wrong.”
The top-line argument in support of D.C. statehood is clear: the residents of our nation’s capital pay federal taxes, yet have no representation in Congress besides a mostly non-voting member of the House of Representatives. Organizations and politicians fighting for statehood argue that this lack of representation means that D.C. residents are not full and equal citizens of the United States. This is made all the more striking by the fact that Washington has a larger population than both Wyoming and Vermont and could outnumber Alaska and North Dakota within a generation. In addition, residents “pay more in federal taxes than residents of 22 states do.” And after the 2016 referendum, it is as clear as ever that a vast majority of D.C. residents support statehood.
Arguments in opposition start with the text of the Constitution. The Framers explicitly dictated that the nation’s capital was not to be within a state or a state itself. Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the ability to create a federal district to be the “seat of the Government of the United State”; in 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, establishing a capital city within a 10-mile square area between Maryland and Virginia along the Potomac River. Washington was founded as an independent city so that the federal government would not be beholden to any state government. This was especially important in the late 18th century, when the states retained enormous power and the debate over the role and scale of the federal government was extremely contentious.
Even if Congress were to approve D.C.’s go-ahead referendum and the rest of the admission process were sound, D.C. statehood may violate the Constitution. This is why the authors of a 1993 report from the Heritage Foundation concluded that statehood requires a constitutional amendment. Without it, the whole effort might be challenged in court.
In 2016, D.C. sent a budget to Congress that, for the first time, does not request federal funding; instead, it utilizes local tax revenue, as the states do. In a statement regarding the proposal, Mayor Muriel Bowser confirmed her commitment to “advancing efforts to promote the District’s autonomy, and, ultimately, statehood.”
While it is unclear what the future holds for the D.C. statehood movement, there is close to a consensus among residence and leadership in the city. The political atmosphere in Washington remains contentious and a decision is unlikely in the near future. However, support for statehood within the capital is also unlikely to dissipate.
Maggie Baldridge is an intern at the National Constitution Center. She is also a recent graduate of Dickinson College.
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