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The Constitution gives Congress the authority “to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District … as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”
That is a lot of words to say “Washington, D.C.”
With unified Democratic control of Congress and the White House, one of the left wing’s perennial white whales is being sought after. D.C. Statehood.
Letter writers and columnists alike state the statehood case in moral terms. The argument boils down to a basic “fairness” rationale. Hundreds of thousands of Americans live in Washington and pay taxes, so — the story goes — they are denied sufficient representation in Congress by their lack of statehood.
There is a degree of logic in the argument, particularly when one considers the federal taxes paid by inhabitants of the District. They pay the same federal taxes as other Americans, yet do not have a voting voice in Congress.
Of course, notwithstanding the ongoing National Guard deployment, there aren’t armed guards and walls keeping residents of Washington penned into the jurisdiction. They all have the same right as any American to cross state lines and move elsewhere. And when they do, poof, they gain federal representation in the new place they call home.
But it isn’t that easy. There is a tale of two different cities in our nation’s capital. The median household income in Washington during 2019 was more than $83,000; it was less than $58,000 in Maine. However, Maine’s poverty rate was 10.9 percent, where Washington’s was 13.5 percent.
It is difficult for those in poverty to up and move. So, for those without resources, they are effectively stuck where they are. And they are stuck in a place that intentionally does not provide federal representation.
One possible solution is giving folks the opportunity — and the ability — to choose to leave the District of Columbia. After all, the residents didn’t spring out of the earth; someone, at some time, made an affirmative choice to live in a place without federal voting rights. If people have the opportunity to leave and elect not to do so, so be it. That’s the end of the story.
A second option is the one most often pushed by advocates: D.C. statehood. Our federal capital would become a state in its own right. This comes with two senators and, under the last census, a single voting representative. Yet this was the exact danger the framers foresaw; when the national government is — in a very practical way — subject to the jurisdiction of a single state, that state gains a heightened ability to muck around in national affairs.
The “D.C. State Police” could elect to shut down countless roads leading to the White House or the Capitol. If federal agents need to respond to an emergency, they would need to somehow overcome the newly-created State Police. Yet, since our Constitution also enshrines myriad rights and powers rightly belonging to the states, a standoff could arise. And someone would need to take extralegal actions to accomplish their objective.
That’s a pretty bad outcome for a nation that claims the law is supreme.
There remains a third option. A lot of people in Washington, D.C., don’t like it. But, if we accept the premise that it is wrong for D.C. residents to not have access to federal representation, then “retrocession” becomes a viable solution.
Washington was created as a federal district after Maryland and Virginia ceded the land. The Virginia portion was returned to that state years ago; we could do the same with much of the Maryland land, as well as those who live there. The residents of that area would then be Marylanders, represented in Congress by a voting representative, and constituents of the two Maryland senators.
If the problem we want to solve is ensuring federal representation for the highest number of Americans, it is a very real, very reasonable solution. But if the push for “D.C. Statehood” is motivated by some other reason, such as a desire to gain two dedicated Democratic senators, then “retrocession” probably won’t work.
And folks in D.C. will continue to lack a voice in Congress.