DC Statehood and Power Politics
More voice, more votes, more representation.
George Will had a column this week that was in opposition to DC statehood, The anti-constitutional D.C. statehood pretense, that strikes me as pompously unserious the way that George Will can be.
Note his intro paragraph:
The Democratic-controlled Congress will soon try to transform part of the District of Columbia, which today is about one-eighteenth the size of Rhode Island but 18.9 percent larger than Denver International Airport, into a state. This will involve theatrical and constitutional difficulties.
Yeah, cool. The physical space is small (and a Google search provided a really big airport for comparison!). And yet the population is greater than Vermont and Wyoming (and is a stone’s throw from Alaska’s). Is it too much to note that the first three words of the preamble as “We the people”? Or that Lincoln spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”? Or how about Jefferson and the “created equal” bit? (One could go in this vein for a very long time).
But let’s dispense with rousing historical quotations and focus on the simple fact that people are more important than real estate or the size of the container wherein those people reside. Alaska has about 30,000 more residents than does DC, but it should be a state because it has so much more empty space than does DC? Does that even make sense when you stop and think about it?
BTW, Google tells me that the Dallas/Fort Worth Internal Airport is larger than the Island of Manhattan. Manhattan has at least parts of four congressional districts, two of which are contained solely on the island. So if size of land-mass is the issue, should DFW has at least 2 members of the House? Denver International is even bigger than DFW in landmass. Should they have representation?
Or, might it be that size of landmass is not the relevant variable?
(For those who care, Manhattan has a population of over 1.6 million, which would rank it as 40th in population if it was a state by itself, giving it two US Reps).
The heart of Will’s taunt (I am not sure it is an argument) is largely this:
The Democrats’ theatrical challenge will be to keep straight faces while insisting that their motivation is altruistic: indignation about D.C. residents paying federal taxes without being fully represented in Congress. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan came within 3,761 Minnesota votes of carrying all 50 states, but won less than 14 percent of D.C. votes. In 2020, Donald Trump won 5.4 percent of the D.C. vote. San Francisco will never vote Republican but will do so before D.C. does. Democrats insist, however, that this is irrelevant to them: Their interest is the inviolable principle “no taxation without representation.”
So, do Democrats argue the “no taxation without representation” notion? Yes, they do. Is it accurate? Yes, it is, as citizens of DC have no direct say in national legislation. This is a cut and dry fact.
Now, do some Democrats emphasize this fact and downplay, if not pretend not to notice, that a new state carved out of DC would help them politically. Yes, they do. And Will, who has been a studying, participating in, and/or commenting on politics longer than I have been alive (he is a few months older than my father), knows full well that politicians shade arguments to emphasize that which is advantageous and to de-emphasize that which is not.
What I find noteworthy here is that the half-truth (mentioning taxation without representation while ignoring the realpolitik of DC statehood) is still true and a compelling reason for statehood in and of itself.
Note: I do not know what he is referring to in the link above in terms of Democrats insisting on the irrelevancy of how Democratic voters in DC are, as the link in the original is null, just as I have copied it above. I am not sure that all proponents of statehood focus solely on this issue. I do think proponents ought to be willing to note, if not promote, that yes, this will increase representation of Black and urban interests and that the only party trying to do that is the Democratic Party, so yes, this would lead to more Democrats in the Senate.
Look, Republicans are not shy that they are willing to deny these citizens their rights because they don’t want more Democrats in Congress. (And look, add PR, too, as there is a chance they will send some Reps to Congress).
Will notes some legal and constitutional complexities in the rest of the column that are not as difficult to surmount, in my view, as he makes them out to be, but I am open to having my mind changed. I think that Congress’ power to admit states overrides almost all of the concerns and that the only real conundrum would be the three EVs left to the new version of the District.
But I think all of that is a distraction at the moment that allows lofty and complicated sounding issues to obscure the core issue: there are a lot of citizens that live in the District who do not have some of the basic rights of citizenship as do most Americans.
Let me be extremely straightforward about why I support DC statehood.
My baseline/most fundamental reason is that all citizens ought to have representation in the national legislature. The only way for that to happen under our constitution is for citizens to live in a state. The constitution could be amended to allow for House members only, but this seems rather unlikely. And, of course, that would still deny citizens of DC representation in the Senate.
I could live with retrocession to solve the most fundamental representation problem but as far as I understand it, neither DC residents nor the states in question want that.
(And yes, for any readers unaware of my position on this: I think all US citizens in the territories should have, at a minimum, a vote for president and for the House).
And when we are talking about representation, let’s not forget that DC is half Black and therefore is a specific case of clear under-representation of Black citizens at the national level. And yes, it is small in physical size and urban. It is beyond debate that urban voters are underrepresented in Congress, so an urban state is a bonus in this category.
I would further note that the lack of representation for the citizens of a federal district is another example of American exceptionalism, and not in a good way. Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, India, Malaysia, and Mexico have federal districts and each has representation in Congress, including the national chamber. Other federal democracies, like Germany, include citizens of the capital in other ways (they have representation in the legislature). Colombia, a unitary democracy (i.e., non-federal) has a capital district, and that district has seats in the first chamber (the second chamber is elected from a nationwide district, and individual voters in Bogotá have the same voting strength as voters anywhere in the country).
Democratic theory and practice both suggest that citizens of DC should not be excluded from national politics.
As far as the Senate is concerned, yes, any addition of a small population state actually exacerbates the malapportionment of the chamber. This points to the fundamental design flaw of the chamber itself from the word go and does not speak to whether or not the roughly 700,000 residents of the state deserve the same representation as the residents of the fifty states. If giving 700,000 residents two Senators seems of whack, I concur, but unless there is a movement to fix the Senate itself, that’s how it works. And if we have to err in one direction or the other, I would prefer erring in the direction of representation over not.
Put another way: if you think DC’s population is too small to be represented in the Senate, I have some bad news for you about a number of states who already have representation in the chamber.
But let me be very straightforward and less abstract: I fully understand that this would be adding two Democratic Senators to the mix. Until the Republican Party finds a way to be competitive with urban voters generally and Black voters specifically, odds are awfully good that a state formed from DC would always send two Democrats to the Senate.
Given the wholly unbalanced nature of the Senate that skews towards rural voter despite the fact that they make up a distinct minority of the national population, I support any move that helps address that imbalance, even if that move is slight. I also think adding states (I also support adding PR) is a constitutional way to help counter-balance voter suppression attempts by Republicans in many states.
I support more voices, more votes, more competition, and more representation.
The best route to that set of goals is substantial reform of the electoral system and to structure of the Congress itself. Since that isn’t going to happen any time soon (although I will continue to advocate for it), I will advocate for doable reform in the meantime.
And look, is this power politics on the part of the Democrats? Yes, it is. And they really shouldn’t shy away from that. If the Republicans want to play power politics to suppress the vote at the state level, Democrats have every reason to play power politics to expand representation.
Which power politics is morally more defensible?
For broader context, some of my previous posts:
- Reforms: the Possible, the Improbable, and the Unpossible
- Why I am Where I am on Reform
- Our Political Reality (which, in turn, has more links to other posts I have written on these topics).