The Case Against D.C. Statehood

In the latest episode of let’s-reshape-institutions-that-make-us-lose, Democrats have turned on the “insufficiently democratic” Senate. The new brand of complaint has now evolved into an argument for District of Columbia statehood. The argument runs like this: D.C. has a population of about 700,000 people. The entire state of Wyoming has about 600,000. The comparison is intended to illustrate the supposed injustice that D.C. residents have no vote in Congress. Of course, what goes unsaid is that if D.C. is granted statehood, and thus two senators, there is no doubt as to which party would benefit.

Both the official and unofficial considerations are a part of a see-through Democratic effort to manipulate institutions in their favor. The reason D.C. should never be a state is the same reason that the capital moved to D.C. in the first place: so that the federal government would not be under the undue control or influence of a “host” state. The Founders moved from Philadelphia in part because they wanted the federal government to bear no unfair allegiance to the state that housed them. They did not want a state to be able to make decisions affecting their workplace or other aspects of their lives that could be calculated to achieve an influence on them. They wanted their everyday needs of utilities, roads, traffic, and safety to be independent of any state for two reasons: first, so that a state couldn’t blackmail the federal government into something by interfering with those essential resources, and second, so that the federal government wouldn’t feel as though it owed the host state anything for providing those resources. So, in order to preserve its impartiality and independence from the states, and ensure that it was immune to underhand tactics, the government made its home in a district that would be under the exclusive authority of the federal government. The federal government would be on its own property, take care of itself, and maintain its independence from state governments. The exclusive control that the federal government was given over D.C. helped ensure that only it could control its home and that it would be subject to no state action. After all, one sovereign cannot live in the home of another.

Another argument against D.C. statehood is one of citizenship. The District of Columbia was never meant to be a place where people lived out their lives. It was a place for representatives from various states to reside and congregate for temporary blocks of time, after which they would retire and move back home (many members of Congress even today don’t live in D.C. and commute from their home states). The District was meant to be the home of the federal government, and it was assumed, given the District’s bad terrain and small size, that the only people there would have some connection to the federal government. But beyond all this, the call for D.C. statehood would run into another severe challenge: the District of Columbia was originally founded on land ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland (Virginia was given back its share in 1846). The implication is simple: Maryland gave the federal government its land to create a neutral federal district; if it were to cease to be one, that land would belong to Maryland. The District’s land belongs to one of two entities: the federal government or the state of Maryland. Even attempting to fashion a third option would lead to a constitutional challenge under Article IV, a particular reading of which forbids the creation of a new state from the land of another.

Democrats miss all this and instead fixate on statehood for a federal district that was never supposed to resemble a state in any way — not in government, not in jurisdiction, and certainly not in electoral behavior. This is not to diminish the reality of the thousands of D.C. residents who have lived in D.C. for generations with few actual ties to other states. The appropriate response to this, however, is a compromise that does not involve reverting to the problematic condition of subjecting the federal government to state influence. Those who live in D.C., have no meaningful state ties, and strongly wish to vote in state or federal elections are free to move where they please, including to the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia.They cannot, however, demand that a well-established system be redesigned in opposition to its fundamental purpose simply to accommodate their convenience.

For the first time in a quarter century, the House will be voting on a bill to confer statehood on the residential portions of the District of Columbia, carving out for federal jurisdiction those areas and locales populated by federal buildings and assets. While this proposal may seem to alleviate many of the concerns discussed above, it turns out, upon closer examination, to be no less problematic than every other proposal for statehood. From jurisdictional issues to questions of utility infrastructure, this is a plan born out of a logistical nightmare.

But, even if one could meaningfully and efficiently segment the District into “federal” and “state” entities, there is an important question that must be answered to justify this measure: why the push for a new state? This goes back to a question raised above – namely, why not give the land back to Maryland? There is nothing preventing the federal government from shrinking the size of the federal district — the Constitution only sets an upper limit of ten square miles — and the excess land can be returned to Maryland at any time with a simple Act of Congress. This would give D.C. residents a state to which they can belong and all the electoral and all state-related benefits that come from state citizenship. Indeed, if political representation and state citizenship for D.C. residents was really what mattered and did not simply form the basis for a calculated political pretext, this is precisely the policy for which Democrats would be pushing. Alas, the whole thing is but a cheap front for a power play, with Democrats having set their eyes on the two new senators that a “New Columbia” would provide them. If they were being honest about their professed concern for the District’s residents, they would shrink the District, return the excess land to Maryland, and be done with it. But, since the rational option does not lend itself to political exploitation, we are all forced to bear witness as Democrats use D.C. residents as pawns in a disingenuous ploy and dangerous power grab. And here we thought they actually cared.

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