The debate over making Washington DC the 51st state geared up Monday as the issue got a hearing in the House of Representatives. Statehood for the nation’s capital has been gaining steam among Democrats, but most Republicans are still staunchly opposed.
Legislation for DC statehood was reintroduced in January in the House by Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democratic delegate representing DC. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
The push to make Washington a state comes 30 years after Norton first took up the issue in the House. Last year in a historic vote, a Democratic-led House passed the bill, but it never reached the GOP-controlled Senate. Even with Democrats now holding a slim majority in the Senate, the measure still faces an uphill battle there.
“With Democrats in control of the White House, the House and the Senate, we have never been closer to D.C. statehood,” Norton said in a statement. “This hearing will inform the many Americans who still do not know that the 712,000 DC residents pay full federal taxes but have no voting representation in Congress, and that Congress has the final say on all local DC matters.”
The bill would reduce the size of the federal district and admit the newly named Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st state. It would also give DC’s residents a voting representative in the House and two US senators. Advocates say the fight for statehood is about racial justice, given that the majority of DC’s residents are people of color.
“I urge all of you to do what our Founding Fathers and over two centuries of lawmakers failed to correct and grant full democracy to D.C. residents through statehood by enacting H.R. 51,” DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said in her opening statement.
What’s at stake could be the balance of power in the US Senate. Since Washington is overwhelmingly a Democratic city, statehood would almost certainly guarantee two more Democratic senators. With that extra measure of control, the party would be in a better position to set the agenda on a number of items, including big tech issues, such as a new net neutrality law and reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The statehood bill has strong support among Democrats, with more than 200 co-sponsoring the legislation in the House. The companion Senate bill has 38 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. President Joe Biden said during the campaign that he’d support statehood for Washington.
But Republicans still oppose the measure. With the Senate filibuster still intact, requiring 60 votes to overcome it, hurdles for statehood loom large.
Here’s a look at what statehood for Washington would mean, and how it might happen.
What is Washington DC?
Washington DC isn’t a state; it’s a district — the District of Columbia. Its creation comes directly from the US Constitution, which provided that the district, “not exceeding 10 Miles square,” would “become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”
Congress established the federal district in 1790 to serve as the nation’s capital, from land belonging to the states of Maryland and Virginia. The Constitution dictates that the federal district be under the jurisdiction of the US Congress.
Who governs Washington?
Through the Home Rule Act of 1973, Washington DC can elect its own officials. The District of Columbia doesn’t have a governor or a state legislature. Instead, it has a mayor and the DC Council, which functions like a city council. Muriel Bowser is mayor.
The government of Washington can establish legal codes, which function like state laws and regulations. These laws cover everything from liquor and gun control to unemployment compensation to food and drug inspection. Washington operates its own police force and public school system. It also has its own separate court system, including an attorney general (currently Karl Racine).
But home rule comes with an asterisk. Congress still has oversight, which means that the federal government can invalidate or veto any law passed by the DC Council.
Does Washington have representation in Congress?
Washington sends what’s called a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Eleanor Holmes Norton has served in this position since 1991. The position lets Norton serve on House committees and speak on the House floor. She may sponsor legislation. But she’s not able to vote.
Washington has no representation in the Senate. This means district residents, who pay some of the highest rates of federal tax, have no say in federally appointed positions, such as the president’s cabinet or those serving as US ambassadors to foreign countries. It also means Washington residents have no voice in the confirmation of judges to the federal bench, or in the confirmation process for justices to the US Supreme Court.
Does Washington vote for US president?
Yes. Since 1961, when the 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted, Washington has had three electoral votes for president and vice president.
What are the arguments in favor of statehood for Washington?
The biggest issue is that for the more than 700,000 residents of the district, there’s taxation without representation. Washington residents pay more in total federal income tax than residents of 22 other states, but they have no say in how those tax dollars are spent.
Additionally, unlike states, Washington has no autonomy from the federal government. Congress has the ability to nullify laws and regulations. And it can even modify and review Washington’s budget. The federal government also has control over Washington’s court system.
How would the legislation create a Washington DC state?
The companion bills carve out a two-mile radius to be called the National Capital Service Area, which includes federal buildings and other areas, such as the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court and the National Mall. This becomes the seat of the federal government as defined in the Constitution.
The rest of Washington, made up of the parts of the city where people actually live, would then become the 51st state, called “Douglass Commonwealth.” This would allow the new state to keep its DC abbreviation and also pay homage to Frederick Douglass, the social reformer and abolitionist. Based on its population, the new state would get one representative in the House, and two senators.
The mayor of Washington would get the new title of governor. And the District Council would function as a state legislative body. Washington would be granted the same rights as any other state. This means the governor would have the ability to activate the National Guard in an emergency.
Is there a precedent for ‘shrinking’ the federal district?
Yes. Alexandria County, which sits across the Potomac River from the district, was originally part of Washington. But in 1846, Alexandria residents looking to protect a major slave trade market petitioned Congress to “retrocede” from the district and return to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Has Congress ever voted on statehood for Washington?
Yes. Legislation for Washington statehood has been introduced for decades. In 1993, a bill finally made it out of committee in the House of Representatives. It went to the House floor for a vote. But it was defeated by a 277-153 count.
Legislation was introduced in 2020 and passed the Democrat-dominated House by a vote of 232-180. It was the first time that a chamber of Congress had passed such legislation.
But the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, where then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring it for a vote. The Senate has never voted on a Washington statehood bill.
Where do things stand now?
Holmes reintroduced the Washington statehood bill in January, and Carper introduced it in the Senate.
One big thing that’s changed between 1993 and now is that most Democrats, including Biden, are in favor of Washington becoming the 51st state. This means that the legislation is likely to pass the House again this year.
But it will face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans still control 50 votes. Even though Democrats can get to a simple majority with Vice President Kamala Harris, who supports statehood for Washington, offering a tie-breaking vote, this bill would need a 60-vote majority to overcome an expected Republican filibuster.
What are the politics of Washington DC statehood?
Democrats’ support for statehood has grown over the years. But Republicans, including McConnell, now the minority leader, are strongly opposed.
The Democrats’ support of statehood and the Republicans’ opposition aren’t surprising given the political realities. Washington, a primarily minority city, votes overwhelmingly Democrat. This means that the additional seat in the House and the two seats in the Senate would likely go to Democrats, tipping the balance of power in the Senate.
What are the arguments against statehood for Washington?
Some strict constitutional scholars argue that Washington statehood goes against the intent of the founding fathers, who wouldn’t have advocated for a small federal district surrounded by a tiny state. There are also questions about how to deal with the 23rd Amendment, which gives Washington its three electoral college votes.
Republicans say the only path toward statehood should come through a constitutional amendment, which would require ratification from the states.
What about making Washington part of Maryland or Virginia?
Some people argue that Washington is too small to be a state. That’s in spite of the fact that it’s more populous than states such as Wyoming and Vermont, and just barely has fewer residents than Alaska.
Some Republicans have pushed for Washington to become a part of Virginia or Maryland. But those proposals haven’t gone anywhere.