Why Isn't Washington, D.C., a State?

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. / Photo by PartTime Portraits on Unsplash

More people live in Washington, D.C., than in either Vermont or Wyoming, but they have no governor, no voting representation in Congress, and only limited local authority. The reason is simple: D.C. isn’t a state. But should it be? That’s where things get a bit more complicated.

A Safe Space for Federal Government

Washington, D.C., was designed to be stateless from the start. The framers included the notion of an independent capital “not exceeding ten Miles square“ in Article I of the Constitution, and James Madison argued in Federalist 43 for “The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government,” which he deemed critical to avoiding the federal government’s “dependence ... on the State.”

Thus when Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson chose a permanent site for the U.S. capital in 1790, Maryland and Virginia each ceded land to form it. The resulting district would, the idea went, allow the federal government to operate without being beholden to any particular member of the union.

An Ongoing Give and Take

But within a century of D.C.’s founding, the motivations for limiting its autonomy had evolved, growing rooted firmly in racial injustice. Just five years after the end of the Civil War, in 1870, the Black population in the nation’s capital had grown to more than three times what it had been a decade before [PDF]. As newly enfranchised Black men elected Black officials, Congress stripped D.C. of its local representation and handed the president the exclusive power to appoint the district's leaders.

A century later, the battle over civil rights raged on. In 1961, not long after D.C. became a predominantly Black city, the 23rd Amendment granted the district three Electoral College votes (the minimum number, even though D.C. had a larger population than 11 other states). In 1973, Congress passed the Home Rule Act, which allowed D.C. residents to elect their own local officials, but reserved the right to “review and approve” legislation and budgets.

Five years later, Congress passed a constitutional amendment granting the district two senators and a voting member of the House of Representatives (a non-voting member had been installed in 1972), but the effort ultimately collapsed when put to the states for ratification.

For the next several decades, political will for D.C. statehood waned. In 1993, Jesse Jackson’s attempted statehood legislation failed by a whopping 124 votes.

The Modern Push for D.C. Statehood

D.C. residents aren’t done fighting. Since 2000, the district’s license plates have featured the protest slogan “End Taxation Without Representation,” and in 2017, 85 percent of residents voted in favor of joining the Union as state 51.

Some politicians may be listening, at least on the left. Every major 2020 Democratic presidential candidate expressed support, and in 2020, the House of Representatives passed a statehood bill, H.R. 51. But Republicans are unconvinced. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring H.R. 51 to a vote in the Senate, saying the move would result in “two more liberal senators.”

For the time being, D.C.’s residents remain in no-man’s land: neighbors to the federal government, yet almost entirely unrepresented in it.

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