What’s to be Done About Washington, D.C.

One of the longest running hypocrisies in American history is the denial of full voting rights to the citizens of the District of Columbia. Residents of Washington D.C. have one non-voting “shadow” member in Congress, but ultimately no say over how their city is run since all laws passed by the city’s government need congressional approval. In an ironic twist, Washingtonians pay taxes with virtually no representation in Congress, explaining the District’s motto of “Taxation without Representation.”

As a result, the issue of voting rights within the District of Columbia has been one of the longest running controversies in American politics. To fix this injustice, several solutions have been proposed. One solution popular amongst Washingtonians proposes that the District be granted statehood, with the portions of land surrounding the Capitol and several other federal buildings to remain under the jurisdiction of Congress. Another proposal involves the so-called “Maryland Retrocession”, where the majority of the District of Columbia would be ceded back to Maryland, its original owner. The last major proposal calls for simply granting residents of Washington D.C. full representation in Congress, without Congress having to relinquish its control over the laws of the city.

All of these proposals have their merits, but ultimately, statehood is the only realistic option.

The challenge that confronts Washingtonians today stems from Article 1 Section 8 Clause 17 of the Constitution, which gave Congress the right to exercise legislative control over the nation’s federal capital district. Additionally, by labeling it as a federal district rather than a state, the residents of the capital were to be denied representation in the body that governs them.

The argument for having a district that’s wholly controlled by Congress is that if the capital was within a state, the federal government would be beholden to that state for basic utilities and services, such as electricity and police. As a result, that state would have unusual leverage over national politics that would be unfair and potentially disruptive. What’s more, opponents of a retrocession or statehood argue that Congressional control over the district has led to an increased amount of federal money flowing into the district, with the creation of the various monuments and other public spaces.

This may be true, but as comedian John Oliver pointed out in a recent segment on his show Last Week Tonight, the status of the city has also resulted in D.C. becoming the victim of the whims of Congress. One example he alludes to is the instance of Congressional Republicans demanding that the city’s needle exchanges be shut down as a condition for the reopening of the government during the 2013 shutdown. Obviously, the politics of the city have been used by both parties as a bargaining chip. This blatant abuse of Congressional jurisdiction over D.C. highlights the need for the city to gain political independence from Congress.

As a result, just giving Washingtonians full representation in Congress isn’t enough as the city’s governance still wouldn’t be in the hands of its citizens. What’s more, due to the fact that the Constitution expressly designates the District of Columbia as a federal district, this solution would require a constitutional amendment, which would be highly difficult to pass. The two remaining options are to return much of the land encompassing the District to Maryland or to grant it full statehood.

The idea of a retrocession is interesting, particularly because it’s been done before. In 1847, Congress ceded the South-Western part of the city back to Virginia, which creates a clear precedent for a Maryland retrocession. No constitutional amendment was required, only a law passed by Congress and the approval of the Virginia legislature.

If this example is to be followed, Washingtonians could be fully represented in Congress by Maryland’s senators and would be placed in one of Maryland’s congressional districts to be served by a member of the House. They would gain the status of an ordinary city within the state of Maryland, and thus have control over their own governance.

While this sounds appealing and appears to satisfy the basic demands of proponents of statehood, it completely disregards two factors. The first is that in order for the retrocession to be carried out, it would need not just the support of Congress, but approval from both D.C.’s city council and the Maryland state legislature, both of whom have expressed their rejection of such a measure. That’s not to say that in the future they won’t change their minds, but as of right now both bodies have emphatically rejected it.

The second and more important reason is that Washingtonians want more than just some legal status; they want recognition as a separate and distinct cultural element within American society. In the same way that Puerto Ricans would never accept becoming part of Florida for full legal rights, Washingtonians sees themselves as distinct from Marylanders.

As a result, statehood is the only realistic option, not just because it would give Washingtonians the status they want but because it would give them the cultural recognition that they desire. However, it can be argued that statehood would require a constitutional amendment, something that wouldn’t be possible given the current state of gridlock in Congress. Additionally, people have been agitating for statehood for decades with little to show for it.

And yet, people continue to push for statehood for the District, with some promising results. In 2014, Senator Tom Carper reopened the issue in the Senate, and in 2009, the District of Columbia approved of a state constitution that will be used if statehood is ever achieved.  Clearly, the issue has been gaining traction. In a surprising twist, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has voiced some support for statehood. While he may not win the Republican nomination or the election, the fact that a prominent Republican has publicly made statements in favor of statehood could be a good omen for the future. While it has been a long fight with few results, there’s no question that it’s worth continuing. And while no one believes that D.C. residents shouldn’t have full voting rights, the best way to attain this for Washingtonians is far from clear.

Benjamin Zuegel