The Constitution of the United States does not define a state or describe its characteristics for purposes of admission to the union. The District of Columbia appears in Article I of the Constitution as part of a listing of enumerated congressional powers of the body “to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may … become the seat of the government.”
Clearly, the authors of the document were sensitive to the populations of the several colonies and balancing equities among them. For that reason, each state was granted the benefit of two senators, along with enumerated House seats to form the bicameral Congress and Electoral College. At the time of their admission to the union in 1959, the last states to be admitted, the population of Alaska was about 236,000, and that of Hawaii 350,000.
Washington, D.C.’s, current population is just over 702,000, substantially greater than that of Vermont or Wyoming. Statehood for the District has been a topic of consideration, discussion, and avoidance for decades and twice that of Hawaii in 1959. The District’s license plate carries a version of a well-known colonial challenge: Taxation Without Representation. The phrase was uttered in a sermon by the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew in Boston in 1750 as one of more than two dozen grievances offered by colonial leaders, among which were the Stamp and Sugar acts. The depth of outrage reached a boiling point as expressed by the Boston Tea Party. Some historians have mused about the failure of the nation’s Tea Party movement to adopt D.C. statehood as a platform plank.
While Congress granted home rule governance to the District in 1973, it remains governed de facto and de jure by Congress through its House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As its population has soared in recent years, the voice for independent statehood has increased commensurately. Article IV, Sec. 2, Cl. 1 authorizes the Congress to admit new states into the union. Beyond that bare prescription, the process is purely political, subject to Congress’ bicameral political dynamics.
As a candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 2016, Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared that D.C. statehood would provide Democrats with more votes and “we don’t need that.” When the political winds blew through the nation in 2018, of course, majority control of the House passed to the Democratic Party. H.R. 1 supporting statehood was passed in March 2019 and D.C.’s representative to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduced H.R. 51, granting full statehood. Hearings by the Committee continue to the present.
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell declared that ascension to statehood for the District represented “full bore socialism” . . . . [and as a presidential candidate in 2016] Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared that D.C. statehood would provide Democrats with more votes and “we don’t need that.”
Recently, in a Fox News interview (June 18, 2019), the Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, declared that ascension to statehood for the District represented “full bore socialism.” The Oversight Committee conducted a hearing during the week of September 16 on the bill. Under Norton’s measure, the national seat would shrink to the National Mall, the White House, Capitol Hill, and a few other federal properties. This proposition aroused some conspiratorial ideas among a few Republicans, who questioned the rationale for leaving the Trump Hotel in the new state. Employing some theory of originalism, Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said, “This is not what the founding fathers intended.”
Of interest to scholars is the fact that the District has had delegate representation to the House since 1787. Under Republican domination, an elected delegate office was formed during Reconstruction for the period 1871-75. In a moment of supreme equity, when the 23d Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1961, it provided the District a number of electors equal to the whole number of senators and representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, but in no event more than the least populous state. In 1970, the present delegate position was re-established.
With majority control of the Senate a major campaign concern for both parties in 2020, further movement toward D.C. statehood likely will pend through that year. If the Democrats obtain Senate majority, the possibility of statehood increases markedly, especially in light of the prospect to gain two additional senators for the majority party. At that point, statehood for Puerto Rico could join the queue.
Pollyannas may dream of national governance driven by ethics, equities, and rationality, but the reality is political when the central issue is power. The District of Columbia looks an awful lot like a state but not sufficiently to be called a duck.