Politics & Policy

Against Columbia Statehood

The Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Breathes there a citizen of this great republic who believes that the most pressing problem in America today is that Washington, D.C., and its denizens simply do not have enough influence on the national government? To listen to House Democrats, you would think so. But this is actually about simple partisanship. The District of Columbia — our national capital district, named for Christopher Columbus — has only once in its history, barely in 1972, given 20 percent of its presidential vote to a Republican. Its local government has been wholly dominated by the Democratic Party for all of living memory. Agitation for D.C. statehood is about partisan advantage, no more and no less.

Friday’s D.C. statehood vote in the House is also entirely symbolic. Only a constitutional amendment can convert the seat of the federal government into a state. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gave Congress plenary local lawmaking power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District” — the broadest power Congress exercises anywhere. The 23rd Amendment, passed by Congress at the urging of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy in 1960, gave D.C. the votes in presidential elections that it would have as a state. But it defines D.C. as a permanent constitutional entity of its own, outside of statehood. The Justice Department has repeatedly concluded, under administrations of both parties, that D.C. statehood requires amending the Constitution. That isn’t going to happen. The last time an amendment was tried, in the 1970s, only 16 states signed on.

On the merits of the proposal, it is difficult to see how the people of D.C. are oppressed, easy to see how their influence is already disproportionate, and easier than ever to see why the federal government would be imperiled by subjecting its physical security to District authorities. True, the Founding Fathers did not anticipate a time when the federal district would have more residents than Vermont. But early Americans also never conceived a time when the federal government would spend 4.5 trillion dollars a year and employ more people in D.C. alone than the entire populations of Syracuse or Dayton.

DC’s median household income varied from 95.6 percent to 107 percent of the national average between 1990 and 2007. Today, it is 136.9 percent, higher than that of any state. There is nearly one federal job for every four residents in D.C., and much of the District’s private employment is in satellites of federal power. D.C.’s suburbs are now the wealthiest places in the nation, and uniquely recession-proof. The District was more than 70 percent African American as recently as 1980, and racial justice is often cited as a reason to grant it statehood. In the past decade, however, it has ceased to be majority-black. But the District’s rapidly changing demographics have not altered its monochromatic partisanship.

Accretion of too much federal power in the capital was one problem foreseen by the Founders: Madison wrote in Federalist No. 43 that “the gradual accumulation of public improvements at the stationary residence of the government would be both too great a public pledge to be left in the hands of a single State, and would create so many obstacles to a removal of the government, as still further to abridge its necessary independence.” The other problem is that the federal government’s national authority could effectively be held hostage by a hostile local government. Madison foresaw that too: without federal control of the capital, he wrote, “the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity,” and “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” to the detriment of other states. Madison lived to see the capital burned when the Maryland militia could not protect it, and a generation after his death, Virginia seceded and Maryland’s loyalty hung in doubt.

Today, that threat is back out in the open. In recent weeks, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of the city, has lobbied for statehood as an expansion of her authority at federal expense:

I think what we saw from this president is something that we haven’t seen in our city, and that was federal troops on the ready, federal police, policing a local city, National Guard troops hauled in from all over the country. So I decided, when we saw those federal police out on D.C. streets, that we had to push back.

We have criticized Trump’s blustery and overly broad assertions of federal authority, but the answer is not to make presidential or congressional power permanently subordinate to a single local official. We have seen in New York and California efforts to use state power over the president’s tax returns as a lever of control over the chief executive. Holding every future Republican presidency hostage to a hostile D.C. mayor’s control of the streets is once again not a far-fetched possibility. The United States should not aspire to be Revolutionary France, with the nation’s government subject to the whim of the capital’s mobs.

D.C. statehood is neither necessary nor likely to happen, and its proponents have not thought through its consequences — or worse, they have.


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