DC Statehood Violates Serious Principles

The DC Council’s petition asking  President-Elect Obama to put “Taxation Without Representation” plates on his limo to “send a clear message to the entire nation and the world” that he supports giving the city a vote in Congress has prompted Matt Yglesias to argue for DC statehood.

DC Statehood Map by Matthew Yglesias

DC Statehood Map by Matthew Yglesias

You would, of course, need to carve out a portion of the existing city to continue serving as the “federal district” and capital of the country. But that could easily be made a compact area around the Mall where nobody (except the President and the First Family) lives and thus nobody is denied voting rights.

[…]

For Democrats, this would mean two new Senators and one new Representative. It would also uphold the basic America idea that citizens should be allowed to vote and should be represented in congress. It would be totally constitutional. And though Columbia would be a small state, it would have a larger population than several current states.

Republicans, obviously, wouldn’t like the idea. But I don’t think there are serious arguments of principle against it. Strangely, though, Democratic leaders don’t seem interested either.

Actually, as one of Matt’s commenters points out, DC’s population of 588,292 is smaller than 49 of the 50 current states, narrowly edging out Wyoming’s 522,830.   It would be far and away the smallest state by geographic size.  Even counting the federal carveout, which eyeballs to about a third of the total land mass, DC is 60 square miles.  The smallest current state, Rhode Island, is 1545 square miles, or twenty times the size.

If we were starting from scratch, we’d never have created many of the New England states or the northwestern territories while giving states equal representation in the Senate.  There’s no need to compound the mistake given the advantage of current knowledge.

In no meaningful way is DC a state-like entity.  It’s a city.  And not even a huge city!   Ranked by population, it’s the 27th largest city in the United States.  It’s smaller than Denver, Nashville, Seattle, Boston, Milwaukee, El Paso, Baltimore, Charlotte, Memphis, Fort Worth, Austin, Columbus OH, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Detroit, San Jose, Dallas, San Diego, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Indeed, it’s half the size of its chief NFL rival, Dallas.  It’s roughly a third the size of Phoenix and a quarter the size of Houston.  Chicago has five times the population.   New York?  Fifteen times bigger. And that’s just counting the actual residents, not the metropolitan areas, which would skew the disparities much further.  But DC’s metro areas are firmly ensconced in Virginia and Maryland, so they’re not part of the discussion.

So, what’s the rational argument for giving DC two Senators when twenty-six other cities and 49 of 50 states are bigger?  There is none.

Beyond that, Matt acknowledges the Framers’ wisdom in providing for a national capital district which isn’t a state; he’s merely making it smaller.

The problem to be solved is not DC residents yearning to breathe free but rather a historical artifact that denies a large population representation in the U.S. Congress.   There are numerous ways to solve that problem without the idiocy of declaring a tiny city a state.

Retrocession to Maryland.   The remaining part of DC was donated by Maryland.  Give it back to them, minus a carve-out for the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, and Mall.

Virtual retrocession.  If Maryland won’t have DC back, simply count DC residents as part of Maryland for the purposes of U.S. Senate representation and allow them to vote for Maryland’s two Senators.  Give them a House seat that’s counted as a “Maryland” seat but whose boundaries are fixed and excepted from the Baker v. Carr rule of equal size.  (This may require a Constitutional amendment but strikes me as within the spirit of the Constitution, since representation would still remain with states.)

Give DC a Congressman.   Forget the Senate entirely and simply give DC a House seat.  I have no objection to this so long as it’s done by Constitutional amendment rather than unconstitutional legislative fiat.

UPDATE: Alex Massie thinks outside the box, attacking it from the taxation rather than the representation angle.

In return for not having a vote in Congress, how about abolishing the federal income tax for DC residents? I suspect there are many who’d be all in favour of that. And of course such a move would do more to repopulate the city – complete with the kind of urban density Matt’s in favour of – and regenerate its schools and so on than just about anything else…

Of course, if we radically increase the size of DC’s population, this “grand bargain” would almost certainly be overturned since the argument for statehood would be more powerful.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Retrocession is the obvious solution.

  2. Maggie Mama says:

    DC has a Congresswoman: Eleanor Holmes Norton. She is a voting member on committees, but is not permitted to vote with the full House.

    Retro-cession is the perfect answer. Maryland as first choice … perhaps Delaware as a second choice.

    Democrats, however, want a guaranteed two extra Senators, so it will be interesting to see how Obama maneuvers this one.

  3. Terry says:

    Another option.
    Make it like a national park/ wildlife area and ban permanent residents.

  4. Michael says:

    I like the virtual retrocession idea, let them vote for Maryland’s senators, and let their current congressman vote.

  5. Michael says:

    Democrats, however, want a guaranteed two extra Senators, so it will be interesting to see how Obama maneuvers this one.

    I think you’ll find support for statehood lacking in the Democratic party too. I just read Kos’s reaction and he’s in favor of retrocession too (though to Virginia instead of Maryland, for partisan reasons).

  6. Michael says:

    A couple of questions brought up the the Kos thread about virtual retrocession:

    Will DC residents be subject to Maryland taxation?

    Will DC’s electoral college votes continue to be separate, or will the be added to Maryland’s?

  7. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    I have no objection to this so long as it’s done by Constitutional amendment rather than unconstitutional legislative fiat.

    Why should this become an impediment now? The $700B bailout was passed unconstitutionally by starting it in the Senate instead of the House. Hillary Clinton is likely to become Secretary of State in spite of constitutional prohibition. And Congress in general is embarking on other “bailout” programs without constitutional authority.

    The Constitution is generally being ignored by one and all, why change now?

  8. John Burgess says:

    You’ve forgotten the best solution:

    Absolve DC residents from federal tax

    If the issue is ‘no taxation without representation’ and there’s no way that DC will get that federal representation, then its residents should not have to pay federal taxes.

    With no federal taxes to pay–and I’m willing to extend this to DC-headquartered corporations–DC can raise its own taxes to 25% and still have everyone residing there taking home a lot more money. It would also see a surge in population and business as high-income earners discover a way to hold onto a bigger portion of their wealth.

    Terry: That kind of sucks for a lot of DC residents. My wife lives in DC. Her family has a long history there… actually, it dates back to before DC was created. Parts of the District are on properties that her ancestors donated to the Republic. She’d have a fair beef if you booted her out of her home.

  9. Steve Plunk says:

    Taxation without representation takes place every day in America outside D.C.. I am liable for California personal income tax even though a resident of Oregon. Since my trucks travel in California and generate revenue California claims that as California income. That’s not road taxes mind you but personal income taxes. So taxes are paid but I have no vote or representation in California. There are thousands of others in similar situations.

    The status of D.C. is the way it is for a reason. I say leave it alone.

  10. cminus says:


    Forget the Senate entirely and simply give DC a House seat. I have no objection to this so long as it’s done by Constitutional amendment rather than unconstitutional legislative fiat.

    Why is every conservative web pundit so convinced that giving DC a House seat by legislative action would be unconstitutional? Kenneth Starr doesn’t think so. Neither does Viet Dinh, author of the Patriot Act. Neither did Alexander Hamilton, whose proposal to condition New York’s ratification of the Constitution on an amendment providing voting rights for D.C. citizens seems to have failed because the majority opinion of the Founders was that, if the District’s population ever reached a meaningful level, Congress could legislate representation via the District Clause. Neither, apparently, does Antonin Scalia, who has publicly pointed out Alexander Hamilton’s letters on this subject.

    However, if you do believe that the District Clause cannot be used to treat the District as a state for the purposes of Congressional representation, then you have to believe that District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court decision overturning the District’s handgun ban, was wrongly decided, since the 2nd Amendment applies to the states. Likewise, Congress should have no power over the District under the Commerce Clause, since if you insist on defining “state” narrowly then no commerce involving the District can be considered “interstate.”

  11. Reid says:

    I know, seriously. And get this: I heard that Hawaii is a freaking island! In fact, a series of freaking islands! What the hell were they thinking? No other state is an island. How the hell could they treat Hawaii as a state when no other state was an island before it.

    And get this: when Wyoming was added as a state, it had the lowest population of the states! Why didn’t they just retrocede it back to the Cheyenne?! How dare they add a state that isn’t at least above average in population?!

    And did you know that no state is called New Columbia? Also, that no state is a medium sized city between Maryland and Virginia?

    Not until we can wrap our heads around such a bizarre concept of a new state not being like the others will we grant DC residents the same basic rights their fellow citizens have.

  12. SV says:

    Retrocede Wyoming into a real state while you’re at it.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    The Constitution says that “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States….” (I.2.1) “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States . . .” (I.2.3)

    Starr’s argument appears to be that because Congress has plenary authority over the District, it can pass any laws concerning the District. But giving the District a representative is a form of power over the States; it reduces their voting power by approximately 1/435th. Congress does not have the power to modify the voting power of the States except through the Constitutional apportionment process.

  14. Daniel says:

    Retrocession all the way. Either the virtual or actual back to MD, where it came from and where it belongs. The attempts to make DC a state are blatantly partisan meant to shift the balance in Congress. Virginia took back her part of DC (thank god!!! Arlington and Alexandria obviously benefited from it) and now MD needs to step up and take back her chunk.
    Keep the tiny slice of federal land and then we are done.

  15. B. Minich says:

    Retrocession is the best solution, but Maryland will never stand for it. You have to realize the power balance in Maryland has always been skewed toward Baltimore, and that politicians from that machine are already concerned about the increasing power of the DC suburbs. They will never vote for something that brings the whole city into Maryland to compete for power – they’ve already lost enough power to those guys, they aren’t giving up control.

    Even virtual retrocession poses problems, because Baltimore would lose influence over the Maryland Senators, which would be a big issue for them. However, it might work because the Statehouse may well remain at the beck and call of Baltimore, along with the legislature – but it would be a hard sell even then.

  16. Brett says:

    Retro-cession, or a form of it, would be the best idea in my opinion. Basically, just change the definition of Washington D.C. so that it doesn’t include residential areas with people who live there and vote (they get to vote as part of either Maryland or Virginia), then run the remaining city government (whose main role now would presumably be to patrol the streets, maintain the utilities to the businesses and public buildings, etc) off of a combination of sales tax and federal subsidy. It is a Federal District, after all – let’s support it out of federal money.

  17. Brett says:

    So, yeah, no permament residents (meaning no residential areas or housing). You don’t need to move people; just re-define them out of the D.C. and into one of the surrounding states. They can then form their own city governments, etc.

  18. cminus says:


    But giving the District a representative is a form of power over the States; it reduces their voting power by approximately 1/435th. Congress does not have the power to modify the voting power of the States except through the Constitutional apportionment process.

    Check Viet Dinh’s argument, though: from 1790 to 1800, District residents voted in Maryland and Virginia by act of Congress. Allowing some states but not others to count non-residents when determining their population for purposes of representation is potentially a lot more consequential to a state’s voting power than diluting each state’s Congressional power by 0.2% would be, but nobody back then thought it was anything but constitutional. It’s pretty clear the Founders thought that Congress had the power to enfranchise the District as it saw fit, and that’s a tough argument for an originalist like Scalia not to like.


    Retrocession is the best solution, but Maryland will never stand for it. You have to realize the power balance in Maryland has always been skewed toward Baltimore, and that politicians from that machine are already concerned about the increasing power of the DC suburbs.

    For that reason, I wouldn’t say Maryland would never stand for it; when Montgomery and Prince George’s do seize control of state politics from Baltimore — it’s going to happen, and fairly soon — they might be amenable to adding a third large county that would stand with them on most issues.

    Personally, I’m not overly concerned about which method gets used to break the current status quo — virtual retrocession to Maryland would be preferable, but true retrocession, statehood, one House seat, or exemptions from income tax and the Second Amendment are all acceptable — but the current situation is an insult to American values.

  19. Richard Williams says:

    As a DC resident, I have long advocated that if the local political elite of the city were actually interested in ensuring that the citizens of District had representation in the Congress, they would pursue the retro-cession of the remaining portion of the donated land of the District to the state of Maryland, with appropriate carve outs for the Supreme court offices, the Capitol and offices, the White House, and the “national” mall. Unfortunately, these politicians are much more interested in carving out high profile, and financially lucrative, positions for themselves.

  20. Maryland doesn’t want D.C. Maryland can’t afford it. Retrocession would mean that Maryland’s laws would have to apply to Washington. That means that the Thorton Education reforms–which are blowing big time holes in the Annapolis budget–would require the state to give mega money to BOTH Washington and Baltimore.

    Then there’s the problem of just how expensive D.C. is. Protecting federal officials, running security for events like inaugurations and parades, etc, is expensive for local law enforcement. As of now, the federal government picks up the tab for most of that. If a state were in charge of D.C., the federal government would probably not pick up as much.

    In short, D.C. costs more than it brings in. So Maryland doesn’t want it. You can’t give it to Virginia because of the Potomac River issue, and even if you could give it to them, the Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates would never allow it to pass.

    Further, citizens of Maryland would have standing–and a pretty good case–to bring if you allowed D.C. to vote in our Senatorial elections. You’d be diluting our vote with people who do not live in our jurisdiction, and are not affected in the slightest way by what our state government does. Further, how do you propose to have such an election take place? Would the Maryland elections board be responsible for the vote in D.C., would they have to pay for it? With what money? Why should Marylanders’ tax money go to subsidize an election that the federal government is paying for.

    What about the constitution of Maryland? An annexation of that size would probably require a constitutional amendment–which are passed via referendum here. The referendum would fail. So after the referendum fails, you’re going to pawn D.C., its dilapidated schools, crime ridden neighborhoods, and bankrupt local government off on people who don’t want it?

    The Maryland solution makes no sense. Perhaps a House Member and a single Senate seat would be a compromise. This way they’re represented, but not the fact that there’s less geographic area to cover is taken into account. However, that will never fly because there’d be allegations of racism going on with that. People would argue, “It’s OK for the 550,000 white people in Wyoming to have 2 Senators, but the 550,000 black people in the District somehow can’t be represented in the Senate.”

    Statehood makes the most sense. Let them have two Senators and a Congress person. Let them call their Mayor “Governor.” It’d drastically reduce the amount of money the federal government has to give to D.C….And there’s a valid argument for including an urban zone in the Senate. There are once again, no African Americans–who make up 14% of the population–in the 98 members of the United States Senate…

  21. Joe R. says:

    Further, citizens of Maryland would have standing–and a pretty good case–to bring if you allowed D.C. to vote in our Senatorial elections. You’d be diluting our vote with people who do not live in our jurisdiction, and are not affected in the slightest way by what our state government does.

    But if DC got two senators, they’d be able to vote in Congress yet not be accountable to the electors of the current 100 senators. In other words, the Senate dilutes my vote with people who do not live in my jurisdiction. But I guess we accept that.