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Why DC should become our 51st state

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The Washington, D.C., Admissions Act, HR-51 (SB-51 in the Senate), comes up for a hearing on March 22 in the House Oversight Committee. Introduced by nonvoting D.C. delegate-at-large, Eleanor Holmes Norton, HR-51 has 227 co-sponsors in the House. It would create the Douglass Commonwealth — named for famed abolitionist and D.C. resident Frederick Douglas — and carve out a federal enclave that includes Capitol Hill and the area around the White House. 

If there was any doubt that the District of Columbia needs statehood, the events of Jan. 6 cleared it up. Mayor Muriel Bowser was unable to activate the D.C.National Guard without the president’s consent (a power delegated to the Secretary of the Army). The lines of authority to seek mutual aid for the District from neighboring states under the 50-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact are hopelessly tangled, an issue now under investigation through Senate hearings. No governor faces this obstacle. While outnumbered Capitol Police struggled to protect the Capitol on Jan. 6, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department was stretched too thin to protect its own residents and proximate neighborhoods.  

The arguments favoring D.C. statehood go way beyond public safety issues, and some myths need to be put to rest. We will tackle the most persistent myths here, but longtime D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh’s thorough 2014 legal and policy analysis is well worth reading.

For starters, the long-stated myth that D.C. is a “transient city” has not been true for years. In 2019, D.C. had 706,000 residents, over 600,000 of them full-time, year-round residents.

That D.C.’s population is too small to be a state is another myth. The last state admitted to the Union was Hawaii, in 1959. In the U.S. census of 1960, a year later, Hawaii had a population of 632,772, about the same as the number of D.C.’s full-time residents today. D.C. has a larger population than both Wyoming and Vermont, and is almost on par with Alaska and South Dakota.

The claim that because D.C. includes a federal enclave means that senatorial representation would be unfair is another myth. In Nevada, over 80 percent of the land is held by the federal government; in Idaho, it is 60 percent and in California, 50 percent. Yet these states have two senators each, and proportionate representation in the House of Representatives.

D.C. more than pulls its weight when it comes to taxes, too. Residents pay the highest per capita income taxes in the nation. The District does well on the metric of return of federal money not because of benefits programs, but because of federal salaries paid to government workers and because there are no mediating state entities to receive federal grant shares for programs such as Medicaid, so these are paid directly to the District. 

Flimsy constitutional arguments against statehood are more myths resolved by Rep. Holmes Norton’s well-crafted bill:

  • Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution is the “District Clause” that makes the federal district the “Seat of Government” and exercises exclusive legislation in the District. By carving out the downtown area that houses most U.S. government buildings, HR-51/S-1 eliminates the need for a constitutional amendment and resolves any practical concern about which public safety forces are responsible for protecting the White House, the Capitol and other key federal facilities.
  • Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution provides that a state cannot be admitted to the Union that is part of another state. This provision is intended to prevent state secession because of faction. While D.C. was carved out of Maryland and Virginia, that was part of the original constitutional compromise and not a later-taken action that the article was designed to address.

The senators and House members who fly back and forth to D.C. strive to be the voices for their constituents. But who speaks for the people staffing those elected officials’ offices? What about the staff members, Capitol Hill employees and residents of the 120 neighborhoods of D.C.?  When asked in 2016, 86 percent of D.C. voters supported statehood, consistent with prior polling.

D.C. residents lack rights that would be unimaginable if they lived in any state. It was not until 1963, with ratification of the 23rd Amendment, that D.C. residents were given the right to vote for president and vice president with three votes in the Electoral College. Four years later, it gained its own school board; and in 1970 was granted a House delegate who has no vote. 

Home rule was granted to D.C. by Congress in 1973, but the language of that law allows Congress to preempt any action taken by the District’s government. To this day, Congress routinely intervenes in home rule. In 2016, members of Congress attempted to overturn overrule or change 25 local Washington, D.C. laws.  

The lack of statehood means that D.C. cannot:

  • Issue public credits for private projects (limiting certain kinds of economic development initiatives);
  • Impose commuter taxes (since so many Virginia and Maryland residents work in D.C., an impediment to its economic base); and
  • Change the composition or jurisdiction of local courts.
  • The D.C Council, like many states, sets its own budget but Congress has the power to review and modify it. 

The District has many of the responsibilities of a state without the full autonomy and reserved powers that states enjoy under the 10th Amendment. While D.C. is most often treated like a state for purposes of receiving federal grants and aid, Congress can decide to treat it more like a territory — as it did when allocating state aid for COVID-19 relief last year, providing less than half the amount guaranteed to each state. It will take another act of Congress even to undo the power that former President Trump threatened to use to take control of or “federalize” the D.C. police force, another proof of D.C.’s lesser status compared to other state and local governments.

When you weed out the myths, you get to the math that is at the root of the resistance to statehood. Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, worry what two additional senators  — and to a lesser degree, one House member — will do to the balance of power in Congress. They presume that D.C.’s representatives will inevitably and perpetually add to one side of the aisle. But Washington is a sophisticated city. There is a statue of Abraham Lincoln brooding over the tidal basin. Strong moderate Republican Senate candidates could win here, if the party fielded them. After the Jan. 6 riots, it is time to do the right thing and make D.C. the 51st state.

Sheila R. Foster is the Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Urban Law and Policy at Georgetown University. She holds a joint appointment with the Georgetown Law School and the McCourt School of Public Policy. She is faculty director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law ( SALPAL) and lead researcher for the Georgetown Global Cities Initiative’s City Diplomacy Project. Follow her on Twitter @SheilaRFoster and @GtownLawSALPAL

Meryl J. Chertoff is the executive director of Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law (SALPAL) and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown Law. Follow on Twitter @GtownLawSALPAL.

Tags 51st state District of Columbia Donald Trump Eleanor Holmes Norton Muriel Bowser Statehood movement in the District of Columbia Washington, D.C.

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