Volume 40, Issue 2 (2022)

D.C. Statehood: A Half-Made Promise Losing Momentum

By Sergi Torres*

On Thursday, April 22, 2021, the House of Representatives made headlines when they voted to pass H.R. 51, a bill that would grant statehood to Washington, D.C.[1] Over 19 months later, that bill and its progress seems almost entirely halted. Today, over 700,000 D.C. residents remain without a single congressional vote.[2] Larger than the states of Vermont and Wyoming and comparable to Alaska, South Dakota, and Delaware, D.C. receives 3 electoral college votes for president.[3] Yet, that’s where their federal representation stops. Residents of the nation’s capital elect a non-voting Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and receive no representation in the U.S. Senate.[4] Ironically, residents in the District remain disenfranchised from the democratic process while living among monuments dedicated to democracy.

Over 700, 000 United States citizens unable to cast a vote for a voting member in Congress should be enough motivation for action. Still, the demographic makeup of the D.C. community highlights the injustice and inequality accepted by federal leaders. Made up of 47% Black residents, 11% of Hispanic origins, 4% Asian, and 41% white, D.C. stands to be one of the most diverse states admitted to the union.[5] Without a vote in Congress, the city is substantially disadvantaged without any meaningful input in Congressional affairs and the laws that still impact its residents. Congress also has control of city policy. Congress ultimately controls D.C.’s budget and has the power to block meaningful legislation. Without voting power, D.C. residents remain subject to unaccountable national politicians for both national laws and local policy. Putting this burden on the most underrepresented and historically marginalized groups in the United States is a reality no one should accept. Arguments against D.C. include the constitutional and the political, while the real harm of denying residents representation remains unaddressed. The push for D.C. statehood appears stalled, while its importance for equity remains.

Arguments Against D.C. Statehood

Arguments touted against admitting D.C. as a state range from reasonable to absurd, from legal to political.[6]The primary argument against D.C. statehood is the Constitutional argument. Article I, Section 8 Cl. 17, known as the Enclave Clause, of the United States Constitution states that the Congress must have authority over the District.”[7] In part, the Enclave Clause was enacted in response to the poor protection of the Continental Congress when state and local governments failed to protect its members. To maintain its Constitutionality, H.R. 51 carves out a smaller federal enclave that would host a small complex of federal buildings, so the rest of the D.C. area can become a state.[8] This ensures federal protection and governance of the federal enclave independent of D.C. the state.

Second, opposers of D.C. statehood have launched partisan political arguments claiming it is unfair for D.C. to become a state because it would likely result in adding two Democratic senators.

Should the citizens of West Virginia be denied their Democratic Senator because the state hasn’t given an electoral vote for a Democrat in a presidential election in over 20 years?[9] Would Kentuckians be denied their right to their Democratic Governor Andy Beshear because they voted for Donald Trump with over 60% of the vote? Elections in a newly created state that has overwhelmingly sent its electoral votes to Democrats could be as fluid and unpredictable for Republicans as races in typically Republican favored states are for Democrats. Conceding two Democratic Senate seats is lazy politicking.

Finally, some arguments against D.C. statehood flirt with absurdity. While a strict constitutionalist may argue the single state solution goes against the intent of the framers, current Republican politicians have claimed statehood efforts are “full-bore socialism” and that “D.C. wouldn’t even qualify as a singular congressional district.”[10]

The Harm of Denying D.C. Statehood

Denying D.C. its federal representation withholds from its citizens the same rights their neighbors in Virginia and Maryland enjoy. Equal protection of voting rights has been and remains at the center of contemporary legal battles since the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). Recently, those rights enshrined in the VRA seem to be at risk. On October 4, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Merrill v. Milligan. After blocking a ruling by a three-judge district court that Alabama’s new congressional map likely violates the VRA, the Supreme Court “appeared inclined to permanently set aside the district court’s ruling.”[11] The new makeup of the Supreme Court and their potential to make legal challenges against unfair and unrepresentative congressional redistricting maps more difficult should be more reason to adopt D.C. statehood.

Lack of Momentum for H.R. 51

So why isn’t D.C. statehood getting anywhere? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be all politics. D.C. statehood is on the backburner of the current Democratically controlled legislative and executive branch of government despite the Biden Administration’s support.[12] With Republicans set to take control of the House in January, D.C. statehood appears delayed indefinitely.[13] For now, any push for D.C. statehood will need bipartisan support. In the meantime, the fight for meaningful representation for almost 1 million citizens should take center stage in any new administration committed to voting rights.

Conclusion

No matter any future legal interpretation of the VRA or political headwinds, the case for D.C. statehood should be made loud and clear. No stare decisis, statutory interpretation, or mental gymnastics required. Strawman, red herring, and ad hominem attacks against representation should be left behind. Residents in the nation’s capital deserve to vote for candidates who will represent their interest and vote for them in Congress. Without meaningful representation in Congress, the residents of D.C. remain discriminated against by not being able to participate in democracy.

[1] H.R. 51, 117th Cong. (2021). Clara Foran, House passes bill that would grant DC statehood, CNN (Apr. 22, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/22/politics/dc-statehood-house-vote/index.html.

[2] Government of the District of Columbia, Why Statehood for D.C., https://statehood.dc.gov (last visited Dec. 18, 2022).

[3] Foran, supra note 1.

[4] Statehood DC, supra note 2. See also, U.S. Const. Amend. XXIII.

[5] Statehood DC, supra note 2. See generally, Kaia Hubbard, The 10 States With the Most Racial Diversity, U.S. NEWS (Aug. 19, 2021), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/slideshows/the-10-most-racially-diverse-states-in-the-us?slide=3 (listing the top ten most racially diverse states in the United States).

[6] Meagan Flynn & Teddy Amendabar, Will D.C. become a state? Explaining the hurdles to statehood., Wash. Post (Apr. 22, 2021).

[7]Zachary B. Wolf, DC Statehood: Why it should (and should not) happen, CNN, (Apr. 23, 2021),  https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/23/politics/washington-dc-statehood-101/index.html; see also U.S. Const. Amend. XVII, cl. 17.

[8] Flynn & Amendabar, supra note 6.

[9] 270towin, https://www.270towin.com/states/West_Virginia (last visited Dec. 18, 2022).

[10] Flynn & Amendabar, supra note 6, (quoting Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) and Daniel Dale, Fact-checking Nancy Mace’s claim that DC wouldn’t ‘qualify’ as a single congressional district, CNN, (Apr. 21, 2021),

https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/21/politics/fact-check-nancy-mace-dc-statehood-population-congressional-district/index.html (quoting and fact-checking U.S. Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina)

[11] Amy Howe, Conservative justices seem poised to uphold Alabama’s redistricting plan in Voting Rights Act challenge, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 4, 2022, 5:19 PM), https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/10/conservative-justices-seem-poised-to-uphold-alabamas-redistricting-plan-in-voting-rights-act-challenge/

[12] See Kevin Breuninger, Biden administration backs D.C. statehood, urges ‘swift’ action as House prepares to vote on bill, CNBC (Apr. 20, 2021), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/16/midterm-house-elections-2022-republicans-take-control-of-the-house.html.

[13] See Kevin Breuninger, Republicans take control of the House, NBC News projects, CNBC (Nov. 16, 2022),https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/16/midterm-house-elections-2022-republicans-take-control-of-the-house.html. See also Flynn & Amendabar, supranote 6 (quoting Republicans on the issue of DC statehood).

 

*Sergi Torres is a staff member on JLI Vol. 41.