Should Washington, D.C., become a state?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A proposal to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state was debated during a hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee this week. Democrats’ impassioned case for granting the district statehood was matched by fervent opposition from Republicans.

Fights over what to do with the nation’s capital has been one of the defining arguments since the early years of American democracy. The first debate was over its location, with Southern states refusing to accept any plan for it to be in the North and vice versa. In 1790, Congress reached a compromise that established a capital district separate from the states along the Potomac River that would be entirely run by the federal government.

Washington, D.C., residents have been fighting for more power to govern themselves ever since. It wasn’t until 1973 that they earned the right to elect their own mayor and city council. Congress still maintains the ability to override local decisions, especially on budgetary matters. The city’s 700,000 residents do not elect senators and are represented by a single delegate in the House of Representatives who is barred from voting on bills.

Historically, most plans to grant D.C. statehood have focused on amending the Constitution — an effort that came close to success in 1978. The current proposal, however, would allow the capital district to remain, but would shrink it so it only encompassed the immediate area where the seats of government are located. The remaining land within the district, where nearly all D.C. residents live, would then become its own state. The major benefit of this new plan is it could pass by a simple majority vote in Congress, rather than the two-thirds majority and state ratifications that are needed to amend the Constitution.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for statehood say the current system disenfranchises D.C.’s citizens, since they have no power to influence federal decision making that directly affects them. They also argue that lawmakers from far-flung parts of the country are given the ability to override the will of local residents, as they’ve done recently on issues like gun control and abortion. Some historians have argued that opposition to D.C. statehood has deeply racist roots informed by a desire to deny power to the city’s predominantly minority population. Others say granting Washington, D.C., two senators — who would almost certainly be Democrat — would help correct an imbalance in the Senate that gives outsized influence to voters from rural states that lean Republican.

Opponents say D.C. statehood would violate the intentions of the Founders, who wanted the nation’s capital to be independent from a single state’s political influence. A tiny capital district that was entirely surrounded by a single state would be vulnerable to manipulation by that state’s leaders, they argue. Many on the right say the statehood movement is nothing more than a political power grab by Democrats.

Another group makes the case that rather than becoming its own state, Washington, D.C., should become part of Maryland — the state that controlled the land the city now stands on before the capital was established. This solution, supporters argue, would provide residents with the representation they deserve without upsetting the balance of power in Washington.

What’s next

The bill to grant Washington, D.C., statehood is likely to pass through the House, but its prospects of advancing through the Senate appear slim as long as the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for legislation remains in place.

A similar debate to determine whether Puerto Rico should become a state, or should be given the chance to become an independent country, has been brewing in Congress as well.

Perspectives

Supporters

D.C.’s residents deserve equal representation in Congress

“D.C. residents pay as much or more in taxes as everyone else in the country. They do jury duty. They fight in wars. They vote for president. They do all the other things that all U.S. citizens do, but they don’t have anyone who votes in Congress who represents them, which is the very definition of taxation without representation.” — Rachel Maddow, MSNBC

Congress shouldn’t be able to override the will of D.C. voters

“More than any actual state in the union, Washington has been at the mercy of the de facto minority party of the GOP. Conservatives have inflicted their ideological checklist on the city government for years, preventing it from enacting strong gun control and recreational cannabis laws and limiting access to abortion within the district.” — Nina Burleigh, NBC News

D.C. senators would help fix the partisan imbalance in the Senate

“The Senate as a whole massively overrepresents white and rural areas, an imbalance that would be reduced slightly, though not eliminated, by adding a majority-minority state.” — Jonathan Chait, New York

GOP opposition is entirely about maintaining political power

“It is not the Constitution that stands in the way of D.C. statehood. It is a political party that would rather deny equal suffrage to 700,000 Americans than cede any modicum of power.” — Mark Joseph Stern, Slate

D.C. statehood would advance racial justice

“D.C. statehood affects everyone. If you are an American who strives to see a more representative Senate — a body that in its 232 years has only had 11 Black senators — then you care about forming the only state that would have a plurality of Black residents. If you care about racial justice, then you care about granting full voting rights to Black Americans.” — Jamal Holtz, Arizona Republic

Opponents

The D.C. statehood push is a partisan ploy by Democrats

“The agitation for D.C. statehood is little more than a cynical play for partisan advantage.” — Editorial, National Review

D.C. should be reabsorbed back into Maryland

“Once residential Washington is no longer the nation's capital, there is no good reason it should be a separate state and not just part of the state that donated the land, Maryland.” — Editorial, Washington Examiner

A potential state of D.C. would have far too much power over the federal government

“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.” — Michael Cianchette, Bangor Daily News

The Senate was never intended to represent rural and urban voters equally

“The median state is, for now, several points more Republican than the median U.S. voter. Yet the Senate has never aligned perfectly with popular opinion, nor was it designed to. Senate-packing is the left’s remedy.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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