On this USA Independence Day weekend, let’s wish the District of Columbia further political independence from its mama on Capitol Hill.
Here’s a tip of the hat to D.C. leaders’ persistence in securing recent passage of a partisan House of Representatives bill granting the District status as a state with full voting representation in Congress.
The reality is, however, D.C. statehood isn’t politically achievable and won’t happen. The District could possibly make real gains if it aimed for something achievable.
That’s true, in part, owing to something else that’s persistent: the ease with which many in Congress ignore the District’s grievance, “taxation without representation is tyranny,” a battle cry helping our nation’s founders launch the War of Independence.
Since that high-minded start, however, the United States hasn’t always been quick to extend congressional representation to millions of Americans who support the U.S. Treasury: for example, 3.2 million tax-paying Americans in Puerto Rico, where a majority voted in a multiple-choice ballot in 2012 for either statehood or independence from the U.S. If that initiative had culminated in statehood, today there would be four voting Puerto Rican House members and two PR senators. In November, P.R. citizens will vote again on that question.
But for the District, here in two steps is why statehood won’t happen.
In step one, both House and Senate would need to propose D.C. statehood and the president sign the initiative. If ultimately approved by the nation, passage would ensure a two-seat gain for Senate Democrats, and that would face a sky-high hurdle indeed: a 60 percent Senate majority vote just to consider the matter. Thus, step one would require a concurrent Democratic House majority, 60 Senate votes and a Democratic president.
(Note that D.C. statehood would not increase the District’s electoral votes for the presidency; it already gets three, thanks to the 23rd Amendment of 1961.)
In perspective, the last states admitted to the union, Alaska and Hawaii (in 1958 and 1959, respectively, as part of a political compromise), resulted after a decades-long political fight, led by Earnest Gruening, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointed Alaska governor, nonvoting Democratic Alaskan congressional delegates and others.
At the time, President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, favored statehood for then Republican-leaning Hawaii but didn’t support statehood for what was then strongly Democratic Alaska, though he did sign the Alaskan statehood legislation. But many longtime congressional opponents of Alaskan statehood from both parties finally relented and the act was passed.
Further, D.C. statehood in the 2020s can’t count on all Democratic senators’ votes. One reason: senators from the 11 most populace states (based on 2019 Census estimates) now represent over 52 percent of the U.S. population but have only 22 percent of their chamber’s votes. Some Democrats might not wish to tip the balance further toward states with small populations, which would result with D.C. statehood.
What’s more, here is step two: a U.S. constitutional amendment, and that hurdle completes D.C.’s barrier to statehood.
Although Alaska and Hawaii statehood could be passed via acts of Congress and referendums in the candidate states, D.C. statehood would require a constitutional amendment. It won’t happen.
In fact, Congress adopted such an amendment for D.C. statehood in 1978, when Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House and sent the proposal out to the states. Fewer than a third of states voted to ratify, woefully short of the needed three-fourths. Can you imagine three-fourths of states ratifying a move nowadays to add two Democratic senators?
Nonetheless, perhaps District taxpayers can score a voting seat on Capitol Hill.
On May 23, 2007, District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee advocating a bipartisan Senate bill by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent. It would give the District no Senate seats but a voting House seat and otherwise the same legal authority as other states.
The bill, advanced by Democrats and a few Republicans, garnered 57 of the 60 Senate votes needed to proceed. It wasn’t all that the District wanted then, or now, but it’d be hard for today’s Democratic House to pass up that deal.