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Washington, District of Controversy: Examining Statehood for America’s Capital

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian Hutcheson
July 15, 2020

For over 60 years, generations of Americans have grown so accustomed to the sight of the 50 white stars that adorn their national flag that this iteration of Old Glory has acquired an aura of permanency. This constancy was dealt a blow on June 26th when the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 51, which would refashion Washington D.C. into the nation’s 51st state.

The 2020 push to acquire statehood for America’s capital is the most recent chapter in an initiative that has spanned decades, and consensus on the issue is far from unanimous. When considered from the perspective of the entire nation, there are several principled as well as practical advantages of D.C. statehood. There are also negative consequences that help illuminate why the proposal has thus far failed. Analyzing the arguments for and against expanding America’s union is critical to understanding the magnitude of this change to the nation.

A Capital Idea?

It is easy for younger generations of Americans to overlook how common discussions on statehood were leading up to the establishment of the 49th and 50th states of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. Some Americans may be more familiar with the issue in relation to the territory of Puerto Rico, where five referenda have been held on the issue. The question of political representation for Washington D.C., however, is far older.

Debate over D.C.’s political status largely begins in 1801 with the organic act that rescinded the rights of its residents to vote in federal elections. Advances in enfranchisement occurred in 1871, when the District was permitted one non-voting member in the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1961 when the 23rd Amendment granted residents the right to vote in presidential elections. The statehood initiative began emerging in the 1980s, culminating in 1993 when the creation of a new District state was first voted on by the U.S. Congress. City voters in a 2016 referendum overwhelmingly supported statehood and the June 26th legislation of this year marked the first time a chamber of Congress had approved establishing the District as the 51st state.

Disclaiming Dependence

While most of the rewards associated with converting Washington D.C. into a state would most directly benefit the District, there would also be advantages to the broader nation. Some of these benefits can be considered “principled” in that they would complement foundational American political ideals. These would include the patriotic maxim of “No taxation without representation,” which signifies the belief that any government which taxes a population that cannot elect representatives to that government is tyrannical. Although the 1871 Organic Act provided the District with a delegate in the U.S. House, without voting rights the representative power of this office is obviously inferior to that of any Congressmen from a U.S. state.

Of course, many of the theoretical benefits to D.C. becoming a state would also have practical value. Greater autonomy for D.C. entails less control from Congress, the body charged with many aspects of its governance. This would allow the legislative branch greater freedom to fulfill its primary mission of making policy for the whole nation. One of the advantages of federal systems are the efficiency gains from localizing governance, and this strength is undercut by the administrative costs of federal oversight of Washington, D.C. and its 700,000 residents.

Constitutional Caution

If statehood for D.C. truly enjoyed broad support, why has it not happened yet? In truth, the issue remains controversial. Apart from purely partisan opposition, there are compelling reasons why District statehood is imprudent or even unlawful. In a statement released on June 24th, the Office of Management and Budget denounced the change as a violation of the 23rd Amendment, pointing out that it would supply the remaining federal enclave with three Electoral College votes. Additionally, it would create a situation which the Constitution sought to avoid where a state containing the national capital would enjoy excessive influence over the federal activities conducted on behalf of all Americans.

Although the consequences of District statehood are remote for states outside of the D.C metro, they could be hugely impactful for neighboring states like Maryland and Virginia. In a 2009 testimony the eminent economist Alice Rivlin expounded on the sudden loses in income tax which Maryland and Virginia would suffer from a new D.C. state empowered to tax the earnings of residents of these states who work in the capital. The various misgivings surrounding the creation of a District state combine to create the general consensus that despite recent advancements, statehood remains unlikely in the near-term.

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This year’s movement on the issue of establishing the nation’s capital as the 51st state helps remind us that despite their remarkable stability, American political institutions are not immutable. The members of Congress who will ultimately determine the matter will need to consider the impact of the change to the entire nation. Examining the implications, both good and bad, of D.C. statehood will help ensure that the decision is one which is true for the American people and the principles that unite them.

Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Revenue Auditor for the City of Oklahoma City and the President-Elect of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected].

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