Sunday, May 09, 2021

Why D.C. residents want statehood

| March 25, 2021 1:00 AM

The main argument for Washington, D.C.’s statehood is as old as it is obvious: Nowhere else in the country do Americans bear the responsibilities of citizenship without the representation the rest of us take for granted.

People living in this 68-square-mile city — densely packed with more residents than Wyoming or Vermont — pay taxes at the highest rate per capita in the nation. Unlike every other American they don’t have a say in how those funds are spent.

Washington, D.C.’s voting power in Congress is zero. The president and the Senate appoint its local judges, the U.S. Justice Department runs the local police force, and city budgets require Congressional approval.

Official license plates in D.C. understandably read, “end taxation without representation.” So why isn’t it a state?

In 2016, 86 percent of D.C. voters approved a non-binding referendum to become the 51st state. Monday, the issue got a formal hearing in the U.S. House, but even with strong support from Democrats in Congress and the administration, it’s unlikely to get far because it’s so politically charged.

First, the Constitution.

Opponents to statehood say our founding document doesn’t favor it. If they’re right, then the only road to D.C.’s statehood would be a constitutional amendment.

Prove it, say proponents. Nowhere in the document is statehood explicitly forbidden, so an act of Congress could set the wheel in motion.

Both sides – which tend to be divided among party lines with most Republicans against and most Democrats in favor - have a point.

It’s true statehood for the seat of federal government clearly wasn’t the founders’ intent. James Madison expressed in Federalist Paper No. 43:

“Without (the District), not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity; but 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.”

The Papers indicate an intent to keep the federal government independent from state interests. The District was thus created from land cessions by Maryland and Virginia in accordance with Article I, Section 8 which gives Congress total control over it.

However, proponents for statehood point out that explicitly, Article I, Section 8 merely provides that this “federal enclave” (seat of government) cannot exceed 10 miles square (100 square miles), so technically speaking, neighborhoods and businesses outside that could become a state under Congress’s power in Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 to admit new states.

And here’s where it gets even more politically charged, in two ways.

For a city whose dense population is historically Black (47 percent of current residents), this lack of representation is seen as unfinished work of the Civil Rights movement. Plus, by any race or ethnicity, the city leans blue — a staggering 92 percent of D.C. voters favored Joe Biden in 2020.

When formed, by design this district-but-not-a-city was controlled only by White landowning men. Obviously amendments have changed that, but the history is relevant because D.C. wasn’t always without self-control.

During Reconstruction about a third of D.C.’s population was Black. So when Black men won their hard-earned right to vote in 1867, they quickly established themselves in local government. Congress responded by dismantling that government through new laws in 1871 and 1874, giving the president sole power to appoint D.C. leaders. Already lacking the power to elect voting members of Congress, D.C. residents had no recourse.

Progress took another century. In 1961, D.C. residents won the right to vote for president and vice president via the Twenty-Third Amendment. In 1973 the Home Rule Act gave them the right to elect their own mayor and city council, but Congress can overrule any local laws they pass, and has done so.

Today, D.C.’s roughly 700,000 residents have the highest median household incomes and highest per-capita GDP in the nation. One way or another, they are determined to get the same representation as any other American.

But most outside the area, at least so far, tend not to agree. A 2019 Gallup poll found 64 percent of Americans opposed D.C. statehood, with just 29 percent in favor. Older polls had similar results; more people favor statehood for Puerto Rico (66 percent in 2019, Gallup).

James Otis, Jr., a lawyer who led the intellectual attack against the Crown in the American Revolution, famously called taxation without representation tyranny. With such a legacy pitted against its controversial history, this debate is fated to rage on.

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email