The fight to make Washington, DC, the 51st state is getting new legs, with a group of Democrats in the Senate, led by Delaware’s Tom Carper, introducing statehood legislation last week. It’s the first major push for statehood since the Capitol was attacked by a mob of right-wing radicals spurred on by then President Donald Trump, who sought to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s election win.
The Senate proposal follows a move earlier this month by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat delegate who represents the District of Columbia, who reintroduced the bill with more than 200 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. On Wednesday, Carper unveiled the companion bill in the Senate with 38 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Biden said during the campaign that he’d support statehood for Washington.
The latest push for the legislation comes seven months after the bill passed the House of Representatives for the first time.
“This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue; it’s an American issue, because the lack of fair representation for DC residents is clearly inconsistent with the values on which this country was founded,” Carper said in a statement.
What’s at stake could be the balance of power in the US Senate. Since Washington is overwhelmingly a Democratic city, statehood would almost certainly guarantee two more Democratic Senators. And that could help Democrats regain control of the Senate. With that control, the party could be in a better position to set the agenda on a number of items, including big tech issues such as a new net neutrality law and reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Statehood for Washington, DC, still faces a number of hurdles, including strong opposition from Republicans.
Here’s a look at what statehood for Washington would mean, and how it might happen.
What is Washington, DC?
Washington, DC, isn’t a state; it’s a district. DC stands for District of Columbia. Its creation comes directly from the US Constitution, which provides that the district, “not exceeding 10 Miles square,” would “become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”
Congress established the federal district in 1790 to serve as the nation’s capital, from land belonging to the states of Maryland and Virginia. The Constitution dictates that the federal district be under the jurisdiction of the US Congress.
Who governs Washington?
The District of Columbia doesn’t have a governor or a state legislature. Instead, it has a mayor and a DC Council, which functions like a city council. Muriel Bowser is mayor.
The government of Washington can establish legal codes, which function like state laws and regulations. These laws cover everything from liquor and gun control to unemployment compensation to food and drug inspection. Washington operates its own police force and public school system. It also has its own separate court system, including an attorney general (currently Karl Racine).
But through something called Home Rule, which allows Congress to invalidate any law passed by the DC Council, Congress still retains the power of veto over city decisions.
Does Washington have representation in Congress?
Washington sends what’s called a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Eleanor Holmes Norton has served in this position since 1991. The position lets Norton serve on House committees and speak on the House floor. She may sponsor legislation. But she’s not able to vote.
Washington has no representation in the Senate. This means district residents, who pay some of the highest rates of federal tax, have no say in federally appointed positions, such as the president’s cabinet or those serving as US ambassadors to foreign countries. It also means Washington residents have no voice in the confirmation of judges to the federal bench, or in the confirmation process for justices to the US Supreme Court.
Does Washington vote for US president?
Yes. Since 1961, when the 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted, Washington has had three electoral votes for president and vice president.
What are the arguments in favor of statehood for Washington?
The biggest issue is that for the more than 700,000 residents of the district, there’s taxation without representation. Washington residents pay more in total federal income tax than residents of 22 other states, but they have no say in how those tax dollars are spent.
Additionally, unlike states, Washington has no autonomy from the federal government. Congress has the ability to nullify laws and regulations. And it can even modify and review Washington’s budget. The federal government also has control over Washington’s court system.
How would the legislation create a Washington, DC, state?
The companion bills carve out a 2-mile radius to be called the National Capital Service Area, which includes federal buildings, such as the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court and the National Mall. This becomes the seat of the federal government as defined in the Constitution.
The rest of Washington, made up of the parts of the city where people actually live, would then become the 51st state, called “Douglass Commonwealth.” This would allow the new state to keep its DC abbreviation and also pay homage to Frederick Douglass, the social reformer and abolitionist. Based on its population, the new state would get one representative in the House, and two Senators.
The mayor of Washington would get the new title of governor. And the District Council would function as a state legislative body. Washington would be granted the same rights as any other state. This means the governor would have the ability to activate the National Guard in an emergency.
Is there a precedent for ‘shrinking’ the federal district?
Yes. Alexandria County, which sits across the Potomac River from the district, was originally part of Washington. But in 1846, Alexandria residents looking to protect a major slave-trade market petitioned Congress to “retrocede” from the district and return to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Has Congress ever voted on statehood for Washington, DC?
Yes. Legislation for Washington statehood has been introduced for decades. In 1993, a bill finally made it out of committee in the House of Representatives. It went to the House floor for a vote. But it was defeated in a 277-153 count.
Legislation was introduced in 2020 and passed the Democrat-dominated House by a vote of 232-180. It was the first time that a chamber of Congress had passed such legislation.
But the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, where then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring it for a vote. The Senate has never voted on a Washington statehood bill.
Where do things stand now?
Holmes reintroduced the Washington statehood bill earlier this month, and Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, introduced it in the Senate.
One big thing that’s changed between 1993 and now is that most Democrats, including Biden, are in favor of Washington, DC, becoming the 51st state. This means that the legislation is likely to pass the House again this year.
But it will face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans still control 50 votes. Even though Democrats can get to a simple majority with Vice President Kamala Harris, who supports statehood for Washington, offering a tie-breaking vote, this bill would need a 60-vote majority to overcome an expected Republican filibuster.
What are the politics of Washington, DC, statehood?
Democrats’ support for statehood has grown over the years. But Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are strongly opposed.
The Democrats’ support of statehood and the Republicans’ opposition isn’t surprising given the political realities. Washington, a primarily minority city, votes overwhelmingly Democrat. This means that the additional seat in the House and the two seats in the Senate would likely go to Democrats, tipping the balance of power in the Senate.
What are the arguments against statehood for Washington, DC?
Some strict constitutional scholars argue that Washington statehood goes against the intent of the founding fathers, who wouldn’t have advocated for a small federal district surrounded by a tiny state. There are also questions about how to deal with the 23rd Amendment, which gives Washington its three electoral college votes.
Republicans say the only path toward statehood should come through a constitutional amendment, which would require ratification from the states.
What about making Washington part of Maryland or Virginia?
Some people argue that Washington, DC, is too small to be a state. That’s in spite of the fact that it’s more populous than states such as Wyoming and Vermont, and just barely has fewer residents than Alaska.
Some Republicans have pushed for Washington to become a part of Virginia or Maryland. But those proposals haven’t gone anywhere.