Why DC should (and should not) be the 51st state

Democrats in the House voted Friday to make portions of Washington, DC, the 51st US state, which is historic because it's the furthest such a measure has ever gotten in the House, but also no big deal because the proposal is DOA with a Republican-led Senate and Republican President.

In this Feb. 11, 2020, file photo, a man holds a Washington, DC, flag during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on DC statehood. © Caroline Brehman/AP In this Feb. 11, 2020, file photo, a man holds a Washington, DC, flag during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on DC statehood.


There may not be a Republican-led Senate or Republican President next year, so you need to understand what's going on here.

Why do supporters think DC should be a state?

The more than 700,000 people who live in Washington, DC, don't have a voting member of Congress -- only a delegate in the House -- or representation in the Senate. Seven hundred thousand people isn't nearly the size of most states, but it is certainly more than the populations of the smallest two, Vermont and Wyoming, and on par with Alaska, each of which has two senators and a voting member of Congress.

So DC residents have no say in the federal government?

Actually, they do -- a little. The 23rd Amendment, enacted in 1961, gives District residents a say in presidential elections. The District is treated like a state for that purpose only, and it gets three Electoral College votes. But that's only one portion of the representation a US citizen should probably get.

DC residents have it better than Puerto Ricans in that regard. The residents of that US territory are American citizens but they don't have voting members of Congress and don't get to vote in presidential elections unless they're living in a state. (Keep an eye on the population of Puerto Ricans in Florida in 2020.)

Wait a minute. There are more than 3 million Americans living in Puerto Rico, but only about 700,000 living in DC. Why isn't anyone talking about making Puerto Rico a state?

They are, but the process does not have nearly as much political momentum.

Everybody should get representation in Congress. Why NOT make DC a state?

For starters, the Constitution sort of seems to say it can't be done. Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution says Congress should be in charge of the seat of government, which will be a "District (not exceeding ten Miles square)."

So you'd have to change the Constitution to make DC a state?

Maybe not. The bill passed by the House offers a sneaky and elegant solution. It simply shrinks the size of the federal district to the area just around the National Mall, the White House and Capitol Hill in order to make a state out of the bulk of the city. There would still be a district, but there would also be a new state.

Can you do that? Just change the size of the district?

It's been done before. When it was originally conceived, Washington, DC, was formed from land in both Virginia, west of the Potomac River, and Maryland, east of the Potomac. In the 1840s, the areas west of the Potomac rejoined Virginia in a process called "retrocession."

Then why haven't they done this already?

The short answer is equilibrium. Or Republicans' version of it. They currently have more control over the federal government than you'd think, considering there are fewer Republicans in the US than Democrats. Two senators from DC would almost surely be Democrats, so as long as Republicans control anything in Washington, they'll fight this tooth and nail.

So they're perfectly willing to have citizens go without representation to save power?

Yep. President Donald Trump was asked about it recently.

"DC will never be a state," he told the New York Post last month. "You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic -- Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No, thank you. That'll never happen."

(Friendly correction to the President: There would still ultimately be 435 congresspeople, it's just that DC residents would be picking one of them).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who may not be majority leader next year, has said Democrats would essentially be packing the Senate to move the country toward socialism.

Trump's position seems entirely political.

It is. But DC residents have their own all-or-nothing approach, choosing not to pursue retrocession of the portion of the District that was formerly part of Maryland. That would give DC residents a say in Congress without upsetting the current equilibrium.

"DC voters have already said loud and clear that we do not want retrocession, we want statehood," Mayor Muriel Bowser said last year.

What would happen to the 23rd Amendment if Congress made DC a state?

The bill before Congress says the US would start undoing the amendment. But it takes an amendment to undo an amendment. A constitutional amendment takes years of effort. While the statehood bill envisions a fast track to this process, it'd have to work flawlessly, otherwise the few people who still lived in the federally controlled district might continue to get three electoral votes. (This type of thing will be the subject of lawsuits.)

What do Americans in general say?

About two-thirds of Americans opposed making DC a state in a Gallup poll in 2019. Interestingly, polling found the reverse for Puerto Rico last year -- two-thirds of Americans supported statehood for the territory.

What's it take to make a new state?

Adding a state does not require a constitutional amendment. It just requires the OK of the House, the Senate and the President, although Congress can -- and usually has -- made it more complicated than that.

When was the last time a state was added?

1959. See that note about equilibrium above. In the late 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was President, Alaska and Hawaii were added at roughly the same time. Since the Senate operates with a requirement for a supermajority (60 senators) to enact legislation, Republicans can effectively block any moves by Democrats to make DC or Puerto Rico a state.

This will be one of a large number of reasons a lot of Democrats will start to call for ending the filibuster altogether if they take control of the Senate after the November elections. (Republicans have already been chipping away at the filibuster).

What could be done to stop statehood if Democrats win the Senate?

The plan to simply shrink the capital district is clever. But it's not a foregone conclusion that it's legal. The Supreme Court currently has a Republican-appointed majority. How do you think it would rule when Republicans took the case to court?

Anything else?

Yes. So much more. It's certainly worth noting that Democrats in particular have been talking about fundamental changes to the US system of government in recent years. A lot of Democrats want to change the format of the Supreme Court, and overhaul the Electoral College, which gives so much power to states with fewer people.

Last thing: Where would you fit a 51st star on the American flag?

Great question. People are already thinking about that. But trust me. They'd find space.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the year that the 23rd Amendment was ratified.

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