On Wednesday, July 24, the House of Representatives will officially hold a hearing for the Washington, D.C. Admission Act — a bill which, if passed, would make Washington, D.C. the 51st state. The movement to make the District of Columbia the 51st state has come and gone almost since the founding of the country, but in recent years the movement has grown, and one political group is trying to use the upcoming presidential election to take the statehood movement country-wide. Now the majority of Democratic presidential candidates support the measure, according to Buzzfeed News.
For those paying attention, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. During a CNN Town Hall held back in February, Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders said he’d support making the District the 51st state, which was met with cheers — and Sanders is a handy bellwether to determine how other candidates will fall when it comes to certain issues, even seemingly niche ones like statehood for the District.
But what exactly does the whole idea mean? What is the D.C. statehood movement, and who supports it? Allow us to break it down.
If it’s not a state… what is the District of Columbia?
Washington, D.C. officially became the nation’s capital in 1790, after brief forays in Philadelphia, New York City (where George Washington was inaugurated in 1789), and small towns like York, Pennsylvania and Annapolis, Maryland. The District was established by the Constitution, using land ceded by Virginia and Maryland.
D.C. is, technically speaking, a federal district — a municipality that is under the direct control of the federal government.
Why do people want D.C. to become a state?
At the time the District was formed in 1790, it had a population of approximately 3,000 people. Compared to the approximately 33,000 residents of New York City and 28,000 people in Philadelphia at the time, it was a veritable backwater. But times have changed. Today, the population of Washington, D.C. stands at about 700,000 people. That’s more than the population of Wyoming — which has fewer than 600,000 residents represented by two Senators and a House Rep.
Because D.C. is a federal district, it has zero voting representation in Congress. That means that 700,000 people have zero Senators and one non-voting member of the House of Representatives. They don’t really have a say in the goings-on of Congress at all. In other words: residents of D.C. live in a representative democracy (where people vote to send reps to the capital to vote on their behalf) without any representation themselves. And, as they are under federal jurisdiction, Congress reviews local laws and can nullify any laws that they don’t like.
Additionally, residents pay local, income, sales, and property taxes, which means they’re being taxed without representation. Taxation without representation is exactly the reason those who started the Revolutionary War gave for breaking from England. (To add irony to the situation, license plates in D.C. all sport the motto, “Taxation without representation.”)
In short, people involved in the D.C. statehood movement want the city to be a state so they can have a say in decision-making by their government. Seems reasonable, right?
Is statehood possible?
Yes, it’s possible, but plausibility is another question. In order to qualify for statehood in the U.S., according to Article IV, section 3 of the Constitution, there is at least one requirement:
New States may be admitted by the 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.
In other words: new states may be created, but never within another state.D.C. sits on the border between two states, so the location isn’t a problem, per the Constitution. But, by and large, the qualifications for statehood are left up to Congress to determine on a case-by-case basis. There have also been other guidelines added since the ratification of the Constitution, such as minimum populations (which D.C. far exceeds).
That said, D.C. was created specifically so the federal government has control over its own seat of power and so it is not at the mercy of whatever state in which it resides. Legally, that cannot change. Per the Washington Post, James Madison wrote in one of the Federalist papers that federal control over the seat of federal power was essential, or else “its members could be harassed and its proceeding interrupted with impunity.”
Opponents of statehood, according to Vox’s German Lopez, state that because the District is “very reliant on federal funds” the federal government should be granted a larger say in the local government’s affairs. But, as Lopez points out, “21 states relied on more federal funding as a percentage of their state budgets in 2013.”
Another key argument for statehood: D.C. statehood would not include portions of the District that are the seat of federal power. For example, the U.S. Capitol and White House would remain part of a federal district, while the rest of D.C. would be granted statehood, making it legally kosher.
So are we about to have a 51st state?
In 2016, 79 percent of D.C. residents cast ballots in favor of splitting the district into a residential state, called Washington, Douglass Commonwealth (shortened to D.C.), with a small federal district that would encompass federal buildings and monuments.
More than anything, however, the 2016 measure was symbolic of D.C. residents’ desire for statehood and had little to no hope of being ratified by Congress. Though support for statehood is popular in D.C. itself, it’s wildly unpopular in the rest of the country, with more support for Puerto Rico statehood before District statehood.
That said, the renewed efforts this year are starting to look more hopeful. D.C.’s Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the Washington, D.C. Admission Act earlier this year, and not only will it have a hearing in July, the bill has 211 cosponsors. Combine that with nonprofit 51 for 51 Campaign’s push to get support for D.C. statehood from Democratic candidates, it seems D.C. statehood is primed to make a push unlike any we’ve seen before.