Though Democrats haven’t made any formal moves on the idea yet, statehood for the District of Columbia is very much on their wish list. Ostensibly, it would cure a constitutional anomaly that gives the residents of the District no voice in Congress other than a nonvoting delegate in the House. In a country born under the slogan, “No taxation without representation,” it’s more than a bit embarrassing that citizens of that country’s capital city are taxed without representation.
Yet everyone realizes that the real reason behind the move is to create two new Senate seats that would be held by Democrats for the foreseeable future. How certain are we of this? Consider that in 1984, voters reelected Ronald Reagan in one of the greatest landslides in American political history. He carried 49 states and only missed the 50th by a mere 3,761 votes, yet in the District of Columbia he captured just under 14 percent of the vote.
The Framers of the Constitution didn’t want the capital to be located in a state, fearing that the state would have too much influence as a result. So they authorized the creation of a “District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and by the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.” In Article I, Section 8, the Constitution gives Congress the power “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District.”
Maryland ceded 63 square miles and Virginia 37 to create the ten-miles-square district. In 1846, Congress agreed to retrocede the Virginia portion back to that state, which is why the Pentagon is in Arlington, Virginia, not the District of Columbia.
In the earliest days, residents of the new District simply voted as the citizens of Maryland and Virginia they had previously been. Then, in 1801, Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act, which organized the local government and deprived the citizens of the right to vote in federal elections. But in 1800, the year that the government moved to Washington from Philadelphia, the population of the District was only 8,144. Today, it is a little over 700,000.
In 1960 Congress passed the Twenty-Third Amendment, giving the District’s citizens the right to vote for president, with the District having no more electoral votes than the “least populous state.” Widely perceived as fair, it was ratified in just nine months.
In 1978, Congress passed a proposed amendment that would have treated the District of Columbia, for purposes of federal elections only, as though it were a state, giving it two senators and at least one congressman. But this proved a bridge too far: only 16 states ratified the amendment before the seven-year time limit ran out.
The opposition to the amendment centered on the fact that the District of Columbia bears not the slightest resemblance to a state. Rhode Island, the smallest state geographically, is almost 18 times the size of the District of Columbia. And while the District’s population is 23 percent larger than that of the least populous state, Wyoming, it has nothing like the same diversity of interests.
Wyoming politicians deal with mining, ranching, farming, environmental pressures, Indian issues, and a myriad of other interests. D.C. has only one interest: the care and feeding of the federal government. In other words, it’s the world’s largest company town.
It’s also not a very large city, ranking only 20th in size in the U.S. Why should D.C. have two senators of its own when Nashville, with about the same population, has to share its senators with 92 other Tennessee counties?
With a revived constitutional amendment unlikely to be ratified, Democrats now want to do an end run around the Constitution and make the District a state by legislation. Would that be constitutional? In a word, no.
For one thing, Maryland ceded the land for purposes of creating a federal district, so Congress has no right to make that land into another state without the original state’s permission. For another, the Framers called for a federal district precisely to prevent a state from exercising control over it. Making the District a state of its own would fly in the face of that original intent. And the Constitution gives Congress exclusive legislative control over the District. It has delegated that power to local government, but it can also take it away, as it did in 1874, for almost a century. But Congress cannot permanently give that power away without an amendment.
To get around these inconvenient constitutional impediments, the current proposal would shrink the District down to its federal core, running from the Lincoln Memorial to the Supreme Court—essentially the Mall and the federal buildings and museums on either side, as well as the White House.
That wouldn’t fix the problem that the land was Maryland’s before it was ceded to create a federal district, and it would also create a new constitutional anomaly. The number of permanent residents in the new District would be vanishingly small, but they would, under the Twenty-Third Amendment, control the District’s three electoral votes.
There is, however, a way to give the citizens of the District of Columbia the same rights as other Americans—without doing violence to the Constitution or tilting the balance of power in the Senate. All we need is a simple and fair constitutional amendment:
The Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
For purposes of participating in federal elections only, the citizens of the seat of government of the United States shall be regarded and counted as being citizens of the state that ceded the land to the Government of the United States.
Residents of the District of Columbia would vote, then, for Maryland senators, congressmen, and presidential electors. With the population of the District added to Maryland’s for election purposes, that state would get at least one more congressman and one more electoral vote.
After 220 years, taxation without representation would finally be banished—at least from the nation’s capital.
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