Should Washington, D.C., become the 51st state?

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

What’s happening

A bill that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st U.S. state was approved by a Democratic-led House committee last week, setting the stage for a vote by the full chamber in the near future. If it passes, as expected, it will be the first time the campaign to bestow statehood on the nation’s capital has been endorsed by one of the chambers of Congress. 

Republicans in the Senate are expected to swiftly reject the bill, however, continuing a legacy of partisan sparring over the District of Columbia that has been going on for more than two centuries. 

The fight over where the federal government should be located was one of the defining arguments of the early years of American democracy — 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 run by the federal government. 

Though Washington, D.C., has gradually increased its ability to govern itself over the years — most crucially winning the right to elect its own mayor and council in 1973 — Congress still has 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. 

The effort to increase D.C.’s role in the federal government has been ongoing for decades. The closest it’s come to success was in 1978, when Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given the city full representation in Congress. The amendment was never enacted, however, because not enough states ratified it. In a 2016 referendum, 86 percent of Washington residents voted in favor of the district’s becoming a state.

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 argue that opposition to D.C. statehood has deeply racist roots informed by a desire to deny power to the city’s predominantly minority population. Similar arguments have been made in favor of adding Puerto Rico to the union. But it’s not entirely clear if Puerto Ricans, unlike D.C. residents, want the island to become a state.

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. Many on the right say the statehood movement is purely political, since D.C. would almost certainly elect Democrats to the House and Senate if it became a state.

Others make the case that 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

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called D.C. statehood “full-bore socialism” and said that “none of that stuff is going anywhere.” Democrats would likely need to take control of the Senate and presidency and hold onto the House in the next election for D.C. to have any realistic chance of becoming the 51st state.

Perspectives

Supporters

The citizens of D.C. deserve representation

“[Statehood] bills will finally give the fundamental democratic right to congressional representation to more than 700,000 Americans and rectify a deep injustice that has persisted since our nation’s birth and caused immeasurable harm to its residents since.” — Monica Hopkins and Adriel I. Cepeda Derieux, The Hill

Lawmakers from thousands of miles away shouldn’t have influence over local decisions

“Why does it matter that the District isn’t a state? To begin with, Congress has given itself authority to oversee the District’s budget and overturn our laws. … We cannot rely on people who do not live in the District to fix the problems that are tearing our community apart.” — Jamal Holtz, Houston Chronicle

D.C. statehood would fix an imbalance in the Senate that favors rural states

“By 2040, more than half of the population will live in just eight states, giving a disproportionate amount of electoral power to a small segment of the population that is not reflective of the majority of the country. The Senate is now a place where popular legislation goes to die. It is a major source of federal dysfunction, and it’s just getting worse. But there’s a way to start fixing it: Make the District of Columbia a state.” — Meagan Hatcher-Mays and Ezra Levin, GQ

D.C.’s population and economy are larger than those of some current states

“If admitted, the new state would be more populous than Vermont and Wyoming and close on the heels of six others. The IRS already collects more tax revenue from the district than 22 current states, and its budget outranks at least 14 state governments.” — Nick Martin, New Republic

Pushback on the idea is purely partisan

“Republicans are against statehood because they know it would mean added seats for Democrats in the House and Senate.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Opposition to statehood has historically been rooted in racism

“Efforts to keep home rule out of reach for D.C. have historically been motivated by racist beliefs — chiefly, the idea that a majority-black city, as D.C. was until recently, was unfit to govern itself.”  — Christina Cauterucci, Slate

Skeptics

Republicans would need to receive something in exchange

“Political bribery is what the creation of states has been all about, with some exceptions. Whenever there’s a desire to create a new state, all Congress has to do is vote for it. But like animals on Noah’s ark, states have historically entered the union in pairs, with lawmakers using new states to maintain the balance of partisan power — or at least try to.” — Alan Greenblatt, Vox

The founders never intended for the capital to be a state

“Unfortunately for the protesters, crabby slogans don’t trump the Constitution. … The Founding Fathers rejected the idea that the nation’s capital should be in one of the states.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

D.C. is too small to be a state

“The District of Columbia, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to a state. It is a city. Tiny Rhode Island is nearly 20 times as large.” — John Steele Gordon, Commentary

Support for statehood is purely partisan

“Republicans correctly see the D.C. statehood ploy as the Democratic political power grab that it is.” — Editorial, Washington Times

D.C. should become part of Maryland

“A less controversial remedy would seem to be to restore that land and its residents to Maryland, from which D.C. was originally carved.” — Noah Diekemper, Washington Examiner

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