Democrats have been trying to make Washington, D.C. a full state for years – with little luck, thus far. The latest attempt has cleared the House Oversight Committee and will face the full chamber Tuesday, April 20. Will another star soon be added to the flag? Not likely. There’s a little more to making D.C. a state than simply passing a law through Congress.
How the Founders Made It Easy
Article IV, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution lays out the steps for adding states to the Union:
“New States may be admitted by 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.
The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”
In short: Congress can add new states to the Union simply by passing a law saying it is done, so long as the people joining consent. In this way, any U.S. territory – American Samoa, Guam, or Puerto Rico, for example – could gain statehood. Indeed, some have put forth bills in the past to make Puerto Rico the 51st state – but too many Puerto Ricans are against the idea.
And … Not So Easy
The problem for D.C. is Article I, section 8, clause 17:
“To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful buildings;”
In short: The capital of the Union can’t remain beholden to a state or be a state itself. The Founders didn’t want any one state to leverage control of the seat of government over the rest; they wanted neutral ground where legislators could meet on equal footing. Many see the wisdom in the Founders’ plan: While something like 86% of D.C. voters supported statehood in a 2016 referendum, the rest of the country wasn’t on board. A more recent nationwide poll showed 64% opposed the idea with just 29% in favor.
That Pesky 23rd Amendment
Things started changing with the 23rd Amendment. Before this, residents of the District had no vote in presidential elections. Passed through Congress in 1960 and ratified by 38 states by March 29, 1961, this changed the Constitution so that the District of Columbia could have the same number of electoral votes as the least-populated state. In this way, the Democrats got what they wanted. The District of Columbia became the only non-state to ever have the right to vote in presidential elections, and, so far, no Republican has ever won those three electoral votes.
The 23rd Amendment states:
“Section 1—The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:
A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.
Section 2—The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The language of this amendment reaffirms the fact that D.C. is not a state. One wonders if those extra three electoral votes were worth adding yet one more constitutional hurdle to full statehood – especially since no election since D.C. had electors has been won by a margin of three.
Non-Voting Members of Congress
American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all have some form of non-voting representative in the House of Representatives. They can listen, and they can speak – but they can’t vote. They can’t vote because they aren’t representatives of actual states. D.C.’s non-voting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, assumed office in 1991. The Democrats would love to give her the right to vote in federal laws – not to mention add another two senators, who would almost certainly be Democrats as well. That’s what this push for statehood is really about. It isn’t about equal representation for the D.C. residents; it’s about taking over Congress now and assuring a Democratic Party stronghold in the Senate moving forward.
Another DOA Democrat Deal
Speaking of the Senate … bills to add new states – even when they don’t require a constitutional amendment – can still be filibustered. Cloture to end debate would require three-fifths of the Senate – a number the Democrats can’t achieve. One might assume this means the law is dead on arrival, but one mustn’t disregard the will of the Democrats in charge to “reform” the filibuster. Could this be the last straw that leads to the nuclear option? Given the constitutional issues with this bill, it would be an odd hill to die on … but Democrats have done stranger things in the name of progress.
Read more from James Fite.