Washington, D.C., as the 51st State? What to KnowBy
The U.S. capital is home to more than 700,000 people -- bigger than the population of Wyoming or Vermont. It pays more federal taxes per capita than any state. But Washington, D.C., isn’t a state, which means (among other things) that it doesn’t have a vote in Congress. A decades-long movement to make D.C. the 51st state may have its best chance now, with Democrats in charge on Capitol Hill and the White House. Though the House approved statehood legislation on a party-line vote on April 22, Republican opposition to creating what would be a reliably Democratic new state means it probably will remain just an idea.
1. Why isn’t D.C. a state?
The Constitution directed that the seat of U.S. government be a “District (not exceeding ten miles square)” over which Congress would “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever.” The point of a special district, according to James Madison, was to prevent any particular state from holding too much power as a result of playing host to the national government. The capital was relocated from Philadelphia to what was then called Washington City in 1800. Today, the 20th-largest city in the U.S. is interchangeably known as Washington, D.C., and the District of Columbia.
2. What’s different about living there?
Thanks to a 1973 law approved by Congress, D.C. residents now elect a local government consisting of a mayor and council, but the laws they pass are subject to congressional review and can be overturned. Congress also has blocked the district’s use of funds to regulate legalized marijuana. The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, gave Washington its first-ever say in presidential elections, though it ensures that no matter how its population grows, D.C. can’t have more electors than the least populous state (currently, three). The district is represented in the House by one delegate -- currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat -- who can introduce bills, vote on committees and speak on the floor but can’t vote on the final passage of legislation. The district has no representation in the Senate.
3. Who wants to make D.C. a state?
Norton, as D.C.’s sole voice on Capitol Hill, has introduced statehood legislation in every Congress since 1992. The latest is a bill known as H.R. 51, which passed the House with only Democratic support and is backed as well by President Joe Biden and by advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. Statehood advocates note that the U.S. is the only democracy that denies voting rights in the national legislature to the residents of its capital. The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol added fuel to the cause, since district leaders lacked the authority to mobilize National Guard troops, as state governors can.
4. What would the new state be called?
Should it ever get that far, the 51st state couldn’t be called Washington, since that’s already the name of the state in the Pacific Northwest that spawned Starbucks Corp. and hosts Microsoft Corp. Norton’s bill proposes “State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” combining the names of the first U.S. president and the anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass.
5. What else would change?
The new state would elect two senators, increasing the membership of the Senate to 102, and one representative, bumping the House to 436. An area of about two square miles including the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, and other federal office buildings near the National Mall would remain a federal enclave called the Capital. Norton’s bill is silent on tweaking the American flag, but D.C. officials unveiled a new design with 51 stars ahead of a statehood hearing in 2019.
6. Who is opposed and why?
Republican lawmakers have raised a range of objections. A major one is that unlike the federal territories that have become states through congressional action, changing Washington’s status should require an amendment to the Constitution. Georgia Republican Jody Hice said D.C. would be the only state without an airport, car dealership, or landfill. (Not true.) Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said Wyoming, with a smaller population than D.C., is more deserving of statehood because it’s a “well-rounded, working-class state.” The biggest fear among Republicans might be political, since statehood would surely increase the number of Democrats in Congress. Biden won 92% of the vote in the district in 2020. More than 76% of the district’s voters were registered Democrats as of March 2021, compared to less than 6% Republicans.
7. Is a compromise possible?
There was some movement toward bipartisanship in 2009 when the Senate passed legislation giving D.C. one House representative with voting powers, offset by the addition of a seat in heavily Republican Utah, raising the number of lawmakers in the House to 437. More than 60 senators, including six Republicans, voted in support at the time, but the bill was never taken up in the House.
The Reference Shelf
- A Congressional Research Service summary of the D.C. statehood issue.
- A history of D.C. home rule, from the D.C. Council.
- A Bloomberg CityLab story on the push for D.C. statehood following the Jan. 6 attack.
- Bloomberg Government’s bill summary of H.R. 51.
- Washington Post columnist George Will dismisses “the anti-constitutional D.C. statehood pretense.”
— With assistance by Emily Wilkins