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How to solve the statehood issue

How to solve the statehood issue
© Greg Nash

The full House of Representatives is now set for a vote in the coming days to make the District of Columbia a state. The legislation is a top priority for Democrats and the White House. Senators are calling for the killing of the filibuster rule to allow Washington to become a state with a slim majority of votes after a tie breaker by Vice President Kamala Harris.

There has been comparatively little debate of the bill in the House, where perfunctory hearings rushed it to the floor. What was missing by design was any acknowledgment, let alone any consideration, of alternatives to creating the first city state in the country. Most importantly, there was no discussion of what District of Columbia citizens could actually gain from an alternative to statehood that is known as retrocession.

The country remains sharply divided on statehood for Washington despite years of advocacy and plenty of media support. A Hill Harris poll showed 52 percent of respondents favor statehood while 48 percent oppose. The liberal group Democracy for All Action has since reported little change in that with 54 percent support. However, that still is not a strong degree of support for a new state after decades of pushing the idea.

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Given such deep division, one might think there would have been a series of hearings. Yet like much else in Congress today, there was little debate and absolutely no alternatives were considered. That is all too familiar to some of us who have been involved with this issue for decades. When the efforts failed due to lack of public support, Democrats pushed to give the District of Columbia a vote in the House. I testified five times in the House and Senate against that earlier bill as flagrantly unconstitutional. At the time, I proposed a modified retrocession plan that could have occurred decades back if not for stark opposition from Democrats.

Retrocession refers to returning the District of Columbia to Maryland. It was originally designed to be one small “federal city” composed of land ceded from Maryland and Virginia. The framers did not want any state to control the federal city, and so its citizens would be represented by the Congress as a whole. After a few years, the Virginia citizens decided they wanted to go back and were allowed to retrocede. The Maryland citizens wanted to stay a federal city without direct representation.

I still maintain that the lack of voting status for the District of Columbia is unacceptable and should change. But I do not view statehood as the best option. Under my proposal, the National Mall and other federal buildings would remain the District of Columbia, as is the case with this legislation, but the remainder would retrocede back to Maryland, as did the other half of the federal city to Virginia. Residents would receive full representation while receiving the significant benefits of various educational and other opportunities in Maryland. That reduction of the federal enclave has been folded into this statehood proposal without retrocession.

Beyond desire for state status, there are political reasons why Democrats want to avoid retrocession. Maryland Democrats are not keen on having their center of power shift from Baltimore to Washington. Baltimore has a population of 575,000 so it is smaller than Washington, with a population of around 710,000, and would have to contend with political rivals in the blue state. Moreover, retrocession would not add two new Senate seats and a new House seat for Democrats who hold a majority.

While retrocession might not benefit Democrats, there would be many benefits for District of Columbia residents. They would become part of a larger state with greater resources and success in areas from courts to education and infrastructure. Washington has a population roughly the same as Vermont and larger than Wyoming. But it would be a city state with fewer residents than most areas. Washington is just the 20th largest city in the country. Vermont and Wyoming have fewer citizens, however, Washington occupies only a fraction of their land masses.

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The District of Columbia is less than 70 square miles versus Wyoming at 97,800 square miles and Vermont at 9,600 square mile. Most states not only have greater land masses but more diverse economies. Washington is a one industry town. About 40 percent of its gross domestic product is tied to the government. When you add professional services, like lawyers and lobbyists, it rises to 70 percent. Manufacturing is less than 1 percent, and other sectors comprise tiny portions of the economy.

Maryland has a highly diverse economy, including a growing technology industry. It also has billions of dollars in exports, a critical international port, and one of the best higher education systems in the world. District of Columbia residents could become part of a vibrant state. While many citizens disagree here, I do not believe it is necessary to keep the Capitol outside the control of any state. Existing constitutional doctrines protect federal buildings and enclaves from state interference and control. It is why we could return the area to Maryland and give District of Columbia residents their representative rights as Maryland citizens.

There are strong arguments for statehood, and this is a difficult issue for many of us. However, both Washington and the country deserve a debate on whether to add not just a new state but the first city state resembling an American Liechtenstein. That debate should consider these important alternatives and the opportunities offered by retrocession.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.