The City of Washington was founded by US Congress on 1790 July 16, making it the first national capital created by an act of legislation. Construction of the city began in 1793, with the seat of government transferred in 1800 as most of the public buildings were sufficiently complete to be usable, although the city was described as “raw and unfinished” by president John Adams. In 1801 Congress passed an act formally organizing the District of Columbia, whose territory included Georgetown and the City of Washington, and placing it under control of Congress, thus depriving its residents of federal representation. Georgetown and the City of Washington were dissolved in 1871. DC would continue to be deprived the right to elect its own municipal government until 1973, and even today Congress still has the authority to block municipal legislation. Until 2008, the municipal government of DC was prohibited by Congress from making any expenditures related to seeking representation. DC joined the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in 2015. Today the US is the only democracy whose capital lacks representation in the legislature.
The issue of statehood for DC is a simple question of whether DC residents should have equal rights as American citizens, or be relegated to second-class status.
At the time of DC’s founding, the future of the capital and of the country was uncertain, and the temporary loss of equal rights for a handful of residents – many of whom were elite members of the federal government – was less pressing than the wholesale creation of an administrative apparatus from scratch. Now, 200 years later, “temporary” has gone on long enough. In the intervening centuries the right of suffrage has been recognized for non-landholders, for black Americans, and for women. It is long overdue that the last few gaps in suffrage be remedied. Furthermore, it cannot escape notice that these remaining gaps disproportionately affect black Americans: in fact, DC has more black residents than 20 states.
DC has grown enormously to become not just an administrative headquarters but a large and culturally-significant city in itself, and a representative for American culture as a whole; four of the six most-visited museums in the US are in DC. DC should be the pride of the US and a symbol of American democracy, not a glaring failure to recognize equal rights.
Progress towards equality for DC residents has been slow and hard-fought. A major milestone was reached with the bipartisan passage of the 23rd amendment in 1961, which extended to DC the right to send electors to the electoral college (but not “more than the least populous State”). However, residents in DC continued to have no representation in the Senate, the House and in the process of amending the constitution. What possible justification is there for the idea that DC residents have the right to be represented in the executive branch, but not in the legislative? Where in the constitution, outside of the 23rd amendment, can be found support for US citizens having such an arbitrary subset of rights, when it so plainly guarantees equal rights before the law for all?
The lack of recognition of the right to vote is not the only inequality facing DC; DC continues to lack home rule, the authority to govern itself. In 1973, Congress finally granted DC residents permission to elect their municipal government; previously, the officials were directly appointed by Congress. In 1975 DC would elect Walter Washington as mayor, one of the first black mayors in the US. However, DC judges are still appointed directly by the president, and DC legislation must be approved by Congress before becoming law. This congressional review continues to hamstring DC governance: in recent decades, it has removed protections for gay citizens, measurably increased the spread of HIV (by perhaps 5000 cases; at the time, DC had the highest rate of HIV infection of any US city) by delaying a clean needle program for 8 years, denied access to abortion, and blocked marijuana legalization. Bills that would end progressive DC programs are regularly introduced into Congress. DC’s secondary status has hampered its covid response and access to covid relief funds. Restrictions on abortion access remain in effect today.
Rather than continuing to piecemeal restore rights to DC residents one at a time through a patchwork of legislation, resulting in a separate-but-equal doctrine echoing segregation and civil unions, there is a simple and logical way to achieve equality: statehood for DC.
Restoring the constitutionally guaranteed rights to a people is always an urgent matter! The best time to restore justice is yesteryear, the second best time is now.
However it doesn’t evade our attention that the present political environment makes DC statehood an especially salient matter. With multiple members of the House and Senate openly supporting fascist extremists, control of the Congress balances on the very edge of democracy. Voters, many with desperate financial needs, are depending on the Biden administration to deliver enormously on its promises in the next two years. But restoration of the civil service is a task that will take decades, and is just one step in undoing the legacy of the last four years and beginning to advance towards a more progressive society. Sadly we don’t have decades; we may only have two years, with every step forwards held hostage to a single defection within the Democratic caucus. DC statehood is necessary itself to right a prolonged wrong, but is also the greatest enabler for every other step towards justice we seek at the federal level.
Among the many urgent issues facing this incoming Congress, few are more pressing than climate change. Effective, large-scale action to address climate change is already many decades too late; the human and economic cost of another two year delay at this stage is inconceivable. Unfortunately some members of the senate Democratic caucus have their interests deeply tied to coal and will not support any action – not to mention the many senators attached to the petroleum industry. It is hard to imagine any action on climate change in the next two years with the present balance of the Senate.
While the more progressive members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate have been the most vocal in supporting DC statehood, it is the senators in less liberal states who stand to gain the most! Rather than having their vote needed for every act of progressive legislation, they will be at liberty to vote against the most contentious legislation and not endanger their seat. The sooner DC gains statehood, the sooner they benefit.
President Biden stated in 2015 that he had supported DC statehood for 20 years.
President Obama, 2014 July 21:
Folks in DC pay taxes like everybody else. They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. They should be treated like everybody else.
President Bill Clinton, 1992:
The failure to grant statehood to the men and women of the District of Columbia undercuts America’s greatest promise – that the power flows from the people and not the other way around.
Senator Hillary Clinton, 2016 May 11: (secondary reporting)
…enfranchisement isn’t solely a matter of individual rights. In the case of our nation’s capital, we have an entire populace that is routinely denied a voice in its own democracy. Washington, D.C., is home to nearly 700,000 Americans – more than the entire population of several states. Washingtonians serve in the military, serve on juries and pay taxes just like everyone else. And yet they don’t even have a vote in Congress.
In 2019 Senator Sanders and 41 Democratic senators cosponsored S.631, which would grant statehood to DC. In 1993 he spoke on the congressional floor:
How could I in good conscience say that it is appropriate for Vermont to have two seats in the Senate, which we do, to have a congressman who can vote on all of the issues, which we do, to have a governor and a state legislature which deals with all of the problems facing our people, which we do, and then say that the people of the District of Columbia, with a population larger than Vermont’s and larger than some other states should not be able to enjoy the same rights. […] This debate is about one thing and one thing alone, and that is whether the people of Washington DC are entitled to be full citizens of this country or whether they are not entitled to be full citizens.
In 1999, the American Bar Association, representing more than 400000 lawyers, passed a resolution
that citizens of the District of Columbia shall no longer be denied the fundamental right belonging to other American citizens to vote for voting members of the Congress which governs them.
In 2006 the ABA submitted a statement to Congress fully supporting restoration of voting rights to DC on the basis of the 5th amendment:
It falls to this Congress to restore the voting rights lost by a previous Congress’ omission more than 200 years ago. Not only is there a moral obligation for Congress to restore such rights, there is also a constitutional obligation for Congress to ensure the right of D.C. residents to the equal protection of the laws. […] Under Fourteenth Amendment standards, if a State legislature were to deny to residents of the state’s capital city the right to vote for members of the Legislature, it would be depriving those residents of the equal protection of the laws which is guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth Amendment. Similarly, Congress’ elimination of D.C. residents’ voting representation in the Congress by its adoption of the Organic Act of 1801, may be seen in retrospect as having deprived D.C. residents of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed to them by the Fifth Amendment due process clause.
In 2020, all 26 Democratic candidates for president interviewed by the Washington Post supported statehood for DC.
On 2020 June 26, legislation admitting DC to the US as a state passed the House with 232 votes in favor.
In a 2020 June poll, 48% of registered voters stated they supported DC statehood.
Addendum. While I was writing this, I was informed that terrorists had placed bombs in DC and invaded the capitol building in an attempted coup of the US government. At this time it appears that the security of DC was deliberately undermined by Trump, who had direct authority over the DC national guard, unlike in any state. The very delayed order to activate the DC national guard was given by Pence, not Trump. As a longer form of sabotage, several members of Congress, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jim Jordan, have introduced failed legislation that would remove DC gun laws. Were DC a state or had it had home rule, DC would have had the authority to adequately protect the capitol from armed insurrection.
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