This Monday, Democrats and Republican Representatives started a debate on the House Oversight and Reform Committee about the latest bill introduced by House Democrats aimed at accepting Washington DC as the 51st state of the Union. The bill, called the Washington D.C Act (H.R.51) was introduced early this year and is expected to pass the House, although it faces gloomy prospects in the Senate.
According to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the federal government shall be seated on a district (not exceding ten miles square) which would be formed by states voluntary ceding parts of their territory and with the acceptance of Congress. In other words, the federal goverment must not have its seat within a state of the union, but under a special district which would be under the jursidiction of the American Congress.
It is because of this constitutional clause that citizens of Washington D.C do not have Representatives or Senators in Congress, because they have never been a State and only states have voting members (they do elect one non-voting delegate to the House though) in the Legislative Branch. In fact, the District of Columbia did not have a vote for President until the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution was ratified in 1961, giving them 3 electoral votes in Presidential elections.
Since then, Washington DC has overwhelmingly voted for Democratic presidential candidates in every single election and has only elected Democratic mayor since they have been able to select them via popular vote.
Democrats argue that it is unfair for the citizens of D.C to not have an elected voice in the Legislative chamber, which still levies taxes on them and that only statehood would solve this issue. With the Democratic mayor of the city, Muriel Bowser, saying that keeping DC residents without congressional representation to protect the interests of the federal government as “dangerous, outdated, and downright insulting” in a tweet from her official account.
On the other hand, Republicans argue that D.C. statehood is nothing more than a political ploy by Democrats to increase their chances to win the Senate due to the two extra seats that would come with statehood, while others argue that the move might be only possible under a constitutional amendment, as the Constitution states that the seat of the federal government shall be a district different from any state in the union.
The bill introduced by Democrats in Congress, however, finds a clever way around this constitutional objection. The bill would not eliminate the District, it would just reduce its size (and rename it) to the main buildings of the federal government and the national mall, as well as keeping the authority over the military bases in the city on the hands of Congress, leaving the rest of the city (where the people actually live) as part of the new state. Technically, this could satisfy the constitutional barrier to D.C statehood, although there is some significant disagreement on this front.
The political stakes of DC Statehood
Although the constitutional and legal arguments over DC statehood are surely important, the fact is that the fight for DC statehood, as almost every single fight that ever occurs in Congress, has a very political and partisan core. Basically, the rationale goes as follows: Democrats always win in DC, Republicans always lose; allowing DC to become a State would give Democrats two extra senators and at least one extra representative in the House, giving them a greater chance to retain control in the Capitol.
Democrats have very good reasons to push for giving DC its status as state, as the city is 43% more Democratic than the national average, according to the Cook Political Report. Consequently, Republicans have very good reasons to oppose such measure, DC statehood is just a pure example of a politcal struggle for power.
Democrats also have been actively pushing for admitting Puerto Rico as a state, which would theoretically give them another two extra seats in the Senate from which to retain control. The key difference between both cases being that it would be easier to sell DC statehood to the general electorate than Puerto Rico, as the island is facing a several chronic economic and political crisis.
If Democrats manage to get DC admitted as a state (and that is a big if) their majorities in future would also be far more comfortable from what they have achieved in the recent past. For example, had DC be a state in 2020, Democrats wouldn’t have to be constantly negotiating with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) –also known as the King of Capitol Hill– for discussing who has the best parking spots on the Hill.
In a political climate where gains are marginal and compromise is usually unattainable, having an extra couple (or even four) seats would be vital if Democrats want their policy agenda to pass smoothly.
Fighting over the partisan consequences of accepting new states to the union is as old as the country itself. Maine, for example, was part of Massachusetts and was only accepted as a state on its own right as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, it was accepted as a free state in exchange of allowing Missouri to maintain slavery, in order to keep the balance in the Senate between free states and slave states.
Even the admissions of the latest two states, Alaska and Hawaii, were fraught with political machinations and objections, since southern Democrats feared Hawaii would tip the balance against them and President Eisenhower refusing to accept Alaska as it thought it would obstruct its policies in Congress. In the end, both states were accepted as part of a compromise, with Hawaii becoming a state eight months later than Alaska.
The prospects of D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood
The Democratic bid would most likely fail in the 50-50 Senate, as the vote would certainly be filibustered by Republican Senators and Democrats would have to convince 10 Republican Senators to support a bill that would hinder their chances to keep the Senate on 2022. Additionally, even if the bill provides an answer to the constitutionality question, it is very likely that such measure would be contested in the courts and might even arrive at the Supreme Court.
Hence, Democrats would need to convince their peers in the upper chamber to eliminate the filibuster in order to get their votes for statehoods of Puerto Rico and DC on the Senate floor. A tough challenge, as Sen. Manchin and others have repeatedly stated they do not want to get rid of the filibuster.
Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, regardless of the arguments brought for or against it, seem to be very difficult to achieve at the moment, since the GOP does not have any political incentive (at least at the moment) to accept them. Also, reaching a compromise similar to those of Maine-Missouri in 1820 or Alaska-Hawaii in 1959 looks hard to do as there are no current states that lean Republican that can be added to the union as a balancing force.
Even some measures that would allow D.C. citizens to have federal representation without creating a new state, as allowing them to vote as citizens of Maryland, would not get political traction as Democrats would find no incentives on having more Democratic voters voting in an already solidly blue state.
Residents of D.C. have reasonable arguments to be allowed congressional representation in Congress, after all, they are being taxed without representation. However, until a compromise is found that would ensure the move is not a move that would only benefit one party, allowing DC statehood would only poison the relationship between both parties even further.