On June 26, 2020, House of Representatives Democrats passed a bill proposing to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state in the union. The movement for the capital’s statehood has existed long before this summer, and the House bill is only the most recent push. While the movement has garnered more attention (and opposition) recently, understanding the legislative establishment of Washington, D.C., is paramount to understanding its unique position. 

In June 1783, 400 soldiers from the Continental Army –– the military under the Articles of Confederation –– blockaded Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the then-home of the Congress of Confederation, demanding payment from the government. At that time, the Articles of Confederation did not permit Congress to command the military unless in wartime. Known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, the physical barrier created by the soldiers illustrated two key issues: the limits of the Articles of Confederation and the need for the government to establish and maintain an independent seat of power. Yet lessons learned from the mutiny were only a single tally in favor of a designated capital. 

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 43 about the need for an independent seat of power, as well as the process of admitting a state into the union. Regarding the capital, he says, “The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government, carries its own evidence with it. It is a power exercised by every legislature of the union.” He later discussed specific external forces for which complete authority would deter, largely citing issues consistent with the Philadelphia Mutiny. Madison makes a fair point: The federal government should have complete authority over its permanent seat of power in order to provide security and oversight as is necessary to ensure the government fulfills its duties. 

And so, on July 16, 1790, George Washington signed into effect the Residence Act, providing a permanent seat of power in a plot of land nestled on the Potomac River, adopting land from both Maryland and Virginia. However, with the voluntary cession of land from both states departed another important feature: the right to vote belonging to the citizens of that area. 

Indeed, the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 formally placed the 100 square miles along the Potomac under the complete authority of Congress. Citizens living that area were no longer considered residents of either Maryland or Virginia, and as such, their right to vote was nullified. The District of Columbia was not a state, and thus pursuant to the Constitution, did not receive representation in Congress nor the Electoral College. 

Since 1801, laws regarding Washington, D.C., –– specifically those dealing with representation –– have certainly evolved. In 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, providing Washington, D.C. with votes in the Electoral College equivalent to their hypothetical representation in Congress, provided it was never more than the least populous state. The District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973 transferred local oversight powers from the Congress to a local government, headed by an elected mayor. Additionally, Washington, D.C., maintains one non-voting delegate to the House.

Yet in spite of the limited representation, Washington, D.C., residents continue to pay federal taxes. And herein lies the central issue: taxation without representation. But perhaps, predictably, the issue is not a simple one to resolve. 

The Constitution is explicitly clear in granting both congressional and electoral representation exclusively to states. Territories have long been a part of the nation’s history –– consider the expansion from 13 states to 50 –– but prior to statehood, their representation has always taken the form of a non-voting delegate, akin to Washington, D.C., today. 

Crucially, with statehood comes two senators, and the current Senate balance is precarious, to say the least — something adding two more senators could disrupt. Further, Washington, D.C., already maintains voting rights in the Electoral College, and the addition of a single blue House representative is largely insignificant. Thus, the recent push in the House is driven by the desire to plant two Democratic senators, in hopes of ensuring a Senate majority come January and print as much progressive legislation in four years as possible. 

When considering granting statehood to Washington, D.C., the process of doing so is imperative to understand. Article 4, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution, referred to as the New States Clause, outlines the process of admitting a new state into the union: “New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new state shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of States, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.” An act of congress is required to create a state, and since Washington, D.C., doesn’t belong to any state, proponents of statehood argue such an act is the only hurdle to statehood. 

But here’s a different, perhaps outlandish idea worthy of a few minutes of consideration. In 1846, Virginia retroceded the land granted to Washington, D.C., such that currently, D.C. exclusively occupies land formerly belonging to Maryland. The citizens of the capital on the Virginian side regained their right to vote and began paying state income taxes, fully satisfying taxation and representation. Perhaps citizens of Washington, D.C., should be awarded the right to vote, as well as congressional representation, as Maryland citizens. If land currently belonging to Washington, D.C., that needn’t be under direct congressional authority, be retroceded to Maryland, citizens of Washington, D.C. would attain full representation and begin paying Maryland state taxes in addition to their current federal taxes. And though I suspect many Washington, D.C., residents will oppose this idea, because it negates the progressive power grab in the Senate, it would permit Congress to continue oversight over the government’s seat of power. 

Indeed, the Founders were far wiser than most today, certainly more than our current Congress. When dealing with clearly politically motivated proposals to alter the state of the union, and additionally when such motions are nearsighted, erring on the side of restraint seems appropriately prudent.

Taxation without representation was the rallying cry of the Revolution, and while the capital’s position may appear in direct contradiction to those ideals, one must always dig deeper. Washington, D.C., is not a state, and since its inception in 1790, it never has been. Whether the district should or shouldn’t become a state is a longstanding, multifaceted debate, and one I in no way attempt to resolve here. Instead, only this: As is always true, it is imperative to understand the footing we stand on, so we may avoid losing our balance.

David Lisbonne can be reached at lisbonne@umich.edu.

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