Wyoming, Monaco, voting rights and taxes: All the reasons Washington, DC should be a state

Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY

It was only after nearly a week in the heart of the Tetons, passing the same huge herd of cows multiple times a day, that I realized the animals there had more political clout than I have. And that’s before you even count the horses and moose.

The land is indescribably beautiful, from the mountains to the pastures. Part of that beauty is the emptiness of the vast spaces. Our country would be immensely poorer if we did not have states like Wyoming.  

I would hope that we value diversity not just in individuals but also in America’s regions, states and cities. Which brings me to my own city, the District of Columbia.

It is as urban as Wyoming is rural, and has more people — 711,571 to Wyoming's 572,381. But that’s the only way D.C. comes out ahead. Wyoming has two senators and over 1.3 million cattle. My town has no senators and, apart from three cows at the National Zoo, "no known places with cattle," according to Scott Hollis, head of the livestock section at the Agriculture Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

18th century uprising gave us DC

I bring this up because on Thursday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee is holding the first House hearing on D.C. statehood in 26 years. Don’t dismiss this out of hand, as I used to do. Please at least hear me out.

Driving away from the Tetons through Idaho, past one vast spread after another, with scores of cows and horses dotting the landscape, I couldn’t stop thinking about the 1862 Homestead Act. The federal government, trying to get the continent settled, allowed citizens age 21 or over to stake claims on free land. Native Americans were forced onto reservations to vacate the land, and 4 million farmers and ranchers flooded in — some of them black, once they were freed, but overwhelmingly white overall.

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Washington played a different role. Blacks streamed to this city, in the sheltering shadow of the federal government that had fought for their freedom. It was in the vanguard of granting voting rights for blacks and electing them to office. By 1900, it had the largest percentage of blacks of any American city. By 1975, the city was 70% black. Now that's down to about 48%.

There was considerable paternalism involved in congressional control of Washington, especially back when it was majority black, and you can still see it in congressional attempts to dictate terms to D.C. (for instance, trying to keep it from spending its own taxpayer dollars on abortions for low-income women).

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In truth, however, it was the 18th century leader of Pennsylvania, John Dickinson, who got us into this fix. In 1783, he refused to protect the Confederation Congress with his militia during the so-called Pennsylvania Mutiny, when Revolutionary War soldiers marched on Independence Hall because they hadn't been paid for their service. James Madison later wrote in Federalist Paper No. 43 of the "indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government," to guarantee the government's safety. And thus the District of Columbia was born. 

A world-class democracy deficit

It is not a capital city like other capital cities. A 2007 George Washington University study of capital cities in 10 other democracies found that while three were federal enclaves, none of the 10 was as tightly controlled by its national government as Washington. And (listen up): "In dramatic contrast to Washington, D.C., residents in all the capital cities in our sample have full and legitimate representation in the national political system."

Are there constitutional obstacles to making D.C. a state? Congressional Research Service analyst Kenneth Thomas comes down on the side of not really, because Congress has flexibility. In 2014 testimony to the Senate, he said an early draft of the Constitution authorized Congress to "fix and permanently establish" the capital, but the word "permanently" was removed in the final version. The district got smaller when Virginia took back land that had been part of the new capital, and it could shrink again to a small area encompassing Capitol Hill, the White House and other federal buildings.

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Washington is now only 68 square miles (Wyoming wins again, at about 98,000 square miles) and it is densely populated. We do have some open spaces, including Rock Creek Park, the Aquatic Gardens, an arboretum, the National Mall. We even have neighborhoods that look just like suburbs. 

Taxation without representation

But that is beside the point. It is outrageously undemocratic to deprive us of representation, and it magnifies the underrepresentation of urban America in our national political life — most grievously, in the Senate.

D.C. residents have left no doubt about what they want. Nearly eight in 10 of us voted for statehood at the polls in 2016. I know the rest of the country has some reservations. One recent poll shows that 64% of Americans do not want us to become a state. Maybe they still think of us as Chocolate City, or they think it's still 1783 and Congress can't rely on us for protection, or they don't want two more Democratic senators (that seems inevitable, at least for now). Maybe they think we don't pay taxes, or they know we do and they don’t care about taxation without representation.

They should adjust their thinking, perhaps by considering the case of Monaco. It measures just over three-quarters of a square mile (smaller than New York's Central Park) and has a population of about 39,000.

And it’s a country. All we want to be is a state. A modest proposal, don’t you think?

Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Taxation without representation: Give democracy to DC, make it a state