With all the spectacle of the Presidential election, it’s easy to forget about the vitally-important referendums that Americans across the country will be deciding. Here, in the District of Columbia, residents will be voting on the age-old question that has been considered for as long as the city has existed: should DC be made a state? All across the city, activists, as well as students on campus, have been rallying residents to support this plan to spur Congress to approve DC statehood.
Proponents of the referendum argue that it is a fundamental aspect of our democracy that its citizens have representation in the federal government, including residents of the District. DC statehood would also grant the city much more local autonomy, beyond the Home Rule Act and towards more total control of internal affairs without congressional oversight.
At the theoretical level, these proponents are right: DC residents should have representation in the federal government. The United States of America was founded a nation with the fundamental values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens, and this includes the right to vote and be represented in federal affairs. In our own Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers condemned King George III for “[refusing] to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”
When dealing with the actual enactment, though, DC statehood quickly becomes problematic. Eschewing partisanship, the motion to make DC the 51st state violates several key clauses of the Constitution. Immediately noticeable, DC statehood goes against Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which grants Congress the sole authority to govern the District as the home of the federal government. This was put in place primarily to ensure the unbiased protection of the location of the federal government, inspired by previous revolts and failures to ensure safety in 1780’s Philadelphia.
While it is consistent with our nation’s founding principles that all people have representation in the federal government, it is similarly important that our nation’s capital have the necessary security ensured by the Constitution to allow for the proper functions of government.
However, while few would think of physically holding the federal government hostage, the idea of Congress’ primacy still remains. While constant interference in local affairs may be excessive, the federal government should take the necessary steps to ensure that the proper functions of government may occur, and this requires territorial security. Though the actual government buildings would remain federal land, transferring local governing authority from Congress to ‘New Columbia’ would put that authority in jeopardy.
DC statehood is problematic because of another clause in the Constitution. Article IV discusses the duties of a state, and Section 3 prohibits a new state from being formed within an existing one. The problem here is that the creation of New Columbia would misuse previous land granted by Maryland. In the original cessation of land to create DC, Maryland explicitly noted that the land is being granted to carry out the duties of Article I, Section 8. If DC no longer houses the federal government, Maryland could take issue with the use of its former land.
So where does this leave the referendum? While the District is pursuing statehood in a method comparable to Tennessee (presenting a democratically-approved Constitution to Congress), it is still Congress’ decision to act on the matter. In essence, a Constitutional amendment is required to fully grant DC statehood status and federal representation, and the last attempt in 1978, though passing Congress, failed to be ratified by enough states to be enacted.
One alternative to the statehood question is retrocession of the District’s residential land back to Maryland. This is what happened with Alexandria and Virginia’s contribution to the District in 1846, though this move was primarily to protect slavery in the region. With retrocession to Maryland, though, residents of the District would gain representation through Maryland’s delegation, allowing for the integration of two very comparable cultures while also benefiting from administrative economies of scale with Maryland’s established state services. However, the argument could be made that this would still jeopardize Congress’ local authority in the District, producing similar problems.
Ultimately, the question of DC statehood can’t be resolved so easily. While it is consistent with our nation’s founding principles that all people have representation in the federal government, it is similarly important that our nation’s capital have the necessary security ensured by the Constitution to allow for the proper functions of government. DC residents should be represented, but statehood won’t make all of the problems disappear.