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DC statehood is bad policy and worse politics

DC statehood is bad policy and worse politics
© Greg Nash

Democrats took a step forward in their grab for two additional U.S. Senate seats and one more seat in the House with passage of the House bill that would make Washington, D.C. the 51st state. But lost in all the righteous rhetoric and fever dreams of political power is the political cost this maneuver may exact — not to mention that it’s bad policy and uses the legitimate grievance of lack of representation by D.C. residents for temporary partisan gain.

Statehood for Washington, D.C. is the cause celebre of the moment for the activist Left. Stung by their lack of appeal in rural America (exacerbated by their utter unwillingness to try), adding D.C. as a state is their solution. In other words, if the rules don’t work for us, change the rules.

The fairest solution to the Democrats’ argument against small state overrepresentation is not to exacerbate the problem by adding their own city-state: It would be to attach Vermont to New Hampshire and split up Wyoming amongst its neighbors. But I suspect folks like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden is keeping the filibuster to have 'a Joe Manchin presidency' On The Money: Biden to fire FHFA director after Supreme Court removes restriction | Yellen pleads with Congress to raise debt ceiling MORE (I-Vt.) wouldn’t like that solution.

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The chances of D.C. statehood are near-zero politically and dubious legally (Constitutional? Unconstitutional?). And, while the D.C. statehood crowd fulminates and spins their wheels, the unrepresented citizens of Washington get nothing — in other words, politics as usual.

Two new Senators would necessarily dilute the political power of all the other states. For large states this matters little, but for small states it matters a lot. The very design of the U.S. Senate is to be a bulwark against tyranny of the majority and domination of large state interests. Senators from small states would risk quite a bit voting for D.C. statehood. Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterWhite House digs in as infrastructure talks stall White House advisers huddle with Senate moderates on infrastructure Biden risks break with progressives on infrastructure MORE’s (D-Mont.) explicit support is politically non-sensical.

But it’s not just small state Senators who would pay a political price. Most members of Congress who vote for D.C. statehood (House and Senate) are likely to lose at least some political capital. Democratic House members in swing districts may well have been herded into casting a very costly vote. Washington, D.C. is not a popular place.

The polling on the issue is not very good.

Support for D.C. statehood only rises to a majority when pollsters ask a loaded question that mixes in “taxation without representation” or other leading phrases. Support falls off when negative language is used. Neutral language yields a plurality opposed.

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No poll offers retrocession (returning D.C. to Maryland and thus giving residents full political representation) as an alternative.

Which framing would win in an election? Probably not the pro-statehood framing. Not only is it not really in the self-interest of voters outside D.C. to dilute their political power, Washington, D.C. is not a popular place. When YouGov polled Americans on the best states, D.C. finished dead last — behind perennial national punching bags Alabama, Mississippi and New Jersey.

The predilection to dislike Washington, D.C. is broad and deep. Most voters are not immersed in the machinations of the Senate and the implications of the filibuster, appointee confirmations, reconciliation, and so on. Imagine a Democratic House member in a swing district defending handing over two U.S. Senate seats that would represent lawyers, lobbyists and bureaucrats. That’s a certain ticket for retirement. In some cases, Democratic members could lose primary votes — particularly if their opponents offer retrocession as an alternative.

There are good reasons besides general antipathy for Washington to oppose D.C. statehood. For one thing, Washington’s economy is remarkably lacking in diversity. Unlike any other state, it has practically no manufacturing, just a bit of urban farming and little independent power generation. There is no interstate travel. The city is simply a creature of the federal government.

And it is the dominance of the federal government that is the crux of the problem. Over 240,000 government employees work in a polity of just over 700,000 residents. Just 172,000 federal employees work in California (population 39 million). The city, its service industry, hospitality industry and cultural institutions would not exist in anything close to its current form without the federal government — it certainly would not be part of a statehood debate. 

The more than 240,000 government employees doesn’t include the sky-darkening swarm of lawyers and lobbyists who teem the central city. Any Senator representing D.C. would serve the interests of the federal government bureaucracy and the army of lobbyists in town — and that is a permanent vote for the expansion of the federal government in size, power and financial favors.

The best solution is — and always has been — retrocession, that is returning the vast majority of D.C. back to Maryland, the state from which it was ceded in 1790. Retrocession already has precedent as the District of Columbia originally included the cities of Arlington and Alexandria in Virginia, territory that was retroceded to Virginia in 1846. Not only is there precedent for retrocession, it only requires an Act of Congress, rather than possibly a Constitutional Amendment.

Not only does retrocession solve the representation issue, it would also be in the broader interest of the people of Washington, D.C. Being part of a larger polity (Maryland) reduces the risks inherent in a small, narrowly-focused economy and geography: D.C. residents would have a backstop for fiscal, economic and environmental problems. D.C. would have greater political control over its local needs, whether more power in the regional public transportation authority or decisions regarding the Potomac watershed.

As part of Maryland, D.C. residents would still have federal political power disproportionate to population. Maryland would be the 17th largest state, with the 16 states in front representing over 230 million Americans and 70 percent of the population. Plus, depending on how Maryland draws its Congressional district map, Washington could have more than one House member. Baltimore, with just over 600,000 residents has three.

Most importantly, retrocession would give D.C. residents representation now instead of waiting and hoping for a couple of Senators.

For Republicans, retrocession is a perfect counter to the representation argument and puts Democrats on the back foot. Outside of D.C. and the activist Left, turning D.C. over to Maryland would be a sensible compromise. Opposing retrocession would be a tough act in Iowa and Michigan.

Republicans may blanche at the prospect of giving the Democrats another seat in the House, but if the GOP’s future is dependent on one seat, then the party has no future.

Democrats are in such a lather over grabbing two Senate seats, they can’t back down now — so there is little chance of losing anything.

For the GOP, D.C. statehood is a clear case of liberal overreach that could alone drop several House seats in their lap. Playing the retrocession card makes their hand even stronger and gives Jon Tester a one-way ticket back to Montana in 2024.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.