Copyright: Orhan Cam

The issue of proposed statehood status for Washington, D.C.  has been controversial and problematic for our Federal government for the past 200 years.

 Throughout the second half of the 1770’s and the 1780’s the U.S. capital city shifted several times.  Various locations in New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland all served  briefly as temporary and interim locations for our capital, and it was quite clear during the 1787 Constitutional Convention that a permanent capital city would need to be established. 

In 1790, it was agreed that Maryland and Virginia would both cede land, to form a new national capital city, and in 1791, the District Of Columbia was established.

In the 1790’s our country had recently seceded from British colonial rule, our country’s founders were quite familiar with European political structures in which enormous amounts of power were in the hands of the families of the monarchies and the nobility, while the citizens throughout much of the rest of the countries of Europe lived in poverty. 

Our country’s founders were trying to prevent such inequalities from becoming prevalent here, so they decided that Washington, D.C. would be a Federal “district” and not a state. In the 1790’s, this actually made an enormous amount of sense. Our Federal government was based on a model that had never been tried anywhere else in the world, and our country’s founders recognized that a small handful of politicians could easily become very greedy very quickly and they could potentially corrupt our new system.

The decision to make Washington, D.C. a district and not a state was intended to prevent too much power from being allocated and concentrated within our capital city.

However, by the early 1800’s, it had become clear that the people who live in all of our states have representation in both houses of Congress, while the population of our capital city only has representation in the House of Representatives. The issue of proposed statehood status for Washington, D.C. is another issue which has been controversial and problematic for our Federal government for the past 200 years. While the concept of having a national capital city which is a federal “district” and not a state was an impressively progressive and radical concept in the 1790’s, in the 21st century, this makes impressively little sense.

As of 2015 statistics, our nation’s capital city has a population of 672,228 residents, which means that Washington, D.C. has a slightly larger population than the states of Vermont and Wyoming. 

Washington, D.C. has one (1) non voting Delegate within the House Of Representatives, three (3) electoral votes and zero (0) Senators. To further clarify, Washington, D.C. does not have any Senators, but they have a unique entity which is called “shadow Senators,” and in addition to their Delegate in the House of Representatives, they also have one “shadow representative.”

This is a unique structure, which presently exists only within Washington, D.C., though in earlier centuries some of our other territories had comparable offices prior to achieving statehood status.  The elected “shadow representatives” and the “shadow Senators” come from a 1982 Washington, D.C. state constitution.  The role of the shadow Senators and the shadow Representative is essentially to advocate for full voting rights for the residents of the city, which essentially means statehood status.  In reality, because the proposed 1982 state constitution was approved only by the voters of the Washington, D.C. and not by our Federal government, the offices of the shadow Senators and the shadow Representatives are almost entirely powerless.

Statehood status for Washington, D.C. would raise the number of Senators from 100 to 102, which would be the first increase in the number of Senators since 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii achieved statehood status.

In 1789, we were 13 states, we’ve added 37 states since 1789- which means that our Senate was originally comprised of 26 Senators, and we’ve gradually raised that number up to 100 every time we’ve added new states.  While there have been no shortage of controversies in the U.S. Senate over the course of the past 2¼ centuries, none of them has ever been the result of adding two additional Senators when we’ve added new states. 

The addition of two new Senators if Washington, D.C. would be granted statehood status would likely be a very smooth process too. I’m still surprised today- even in 2016, I talk with a lot of people who are very knowledgeable about quite a few issues relating to domestic as well as international politics, and I’m surprised to see how many myths and misconceptions persist about the movement for proposed statehood status for Washington, D.C. So- to dispel some seemingly common misperceptions:  Washington, D.C. is a city.  That is correct.  It is not a county, though the origins if that misconception are very clear because from 1801 through 1846 part of it was a county. 

Washington, D.C. is not a colony, and it is not a commonwealth nor a territory, it is a unique structure called a federally administered “district.”  Some of the misperception that Washington, D.C. is a colony, a possession, a commonwealth or a colony may come from the U.S. Mint’s 2009 series of quarters; the Washington, D.C. quarter with the picture of Duke Ellington engraved on the reverse side were issued along with the Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Samoa and the Marianna Islands quarters.

 The structure of the government “district” also has a lot in common with the way that our Federal government governs our Caribbean and Pacific Island colonies, so perhaps that may be the source of the common misconception that the city of Washington, D.C. is a colony.

What is not much of a mystery to me is why these misconceptions and myths still persist.  Outside of Washington, D.C. itself, the issue of proposed statehood status for Washington, D.C. receives impressively little publicity in both the domestic mainstream media as well as overseas.  Without much media attention, people aren’t going to become familiar with the issues.

The city government of Washington, D.C. has to address the same issues that every other city government throughout the U.S. has to.  Like any other city, the various agencies of the city’s government have to address sanitation and recycling, repaving the streets and the sidewalks, parking, public housing, programs for senior citizens, the city’s schools- including not only the elementary schools, the junior high schools and the high schools but also the University Of The District Of Columbia, they have to address and administer tourism, the city’s youth programs, public parks, police, the fire department, courts, jails, recreation centers, public libraries, public swimming pools, homeless, burial of deceased homeless, motor vehicles registry and drivers’ licenses (which is usually under the jurisdiction of state government agencies), voter registration and elections, healthcare and pensions for city employees, daycare for the children of city employees, as well as the maintenance and the security of their own buildings. From 1806 through 2001, the city government of Washington, D.C. used to operate Washington General Hospital; the hospital closed in 2001, and the building is now a homeless shelter. 

Most of the bus and subway lines in Washington, D.C. extend to the suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, so both surface and subterranean transport are under the authority of Washington Metrorail, which is an intergovernmental agency. The city’s government does not oversee any museums. Most of the museums in Washington, D.C. are branches of the Smithsonian, as is The National Zoo and the National Botanic Garden (the Washington, D.C. branch of the National Aquarium has been closed since 2013), and the other museums in the city are either privately funded by various arts groups or are funded by various charities.

What is different from any other city in this country, and as far as I know, in the entire world, is that while the residents of the city directly elect their mayor and their city council, the 1973 District Of Columbia Home Rule Act limits the powers and the authority of the city government. 

Issues related to income tax, sales tax and the city’s budget are written by the city government, and  they are submitted to Congress for Congressional approval. 

There exists no other city in the country which has this structure for their capital city, and there exists no other country in the world which does this to the government of their capital city.  This did not make any sense in 1973 when the District Of Columbia Home Rule Act was passed, and it still makes notably little sense today. 

Prior to 1967, the Federal government directly appointed the Board Of Commissioners Of Washington, D.C.  In 1967, President Johnson decided that the people who live in the city should be able to have more of a decision as to who will govern their city.  While it was the Johnson administration which recognized that the structure of the city government of Washington, D.C. needed to be modernized, it was actually the Nixon administration which ended up passing the District Of Columbia Home Rule Act as well as the District Charter in 1973. However, that charter doesn’t really give complete independence to the city government.  The present structure is what journalists and political analysts would likely refer to as a “semi-autonomous zone” if this were to exist in any other country. 

Briefly, the people who live in the city elect their mayor and their city council.  The mayor and the council appoint all of the other positions within the city government.  The city government gets to make most of their decisions regarding the city, and then they submit all of their decisions back to Congress for Congressional approval (or disapproval), meaning that the city’s government gets to do absolutely anything that they want to- as long as Congress permits them to.

The city government also cannot make any changes to the Heights Of Building Act of 1910.  While I personally agree with the height limitations that are imposed on the central neighborhoods because those streets still follow Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 street plan, the decision should not be mine, nor should it be the Federal government’s, it should be left in the hands of the people who live in the city. 

If the majority of the registered voters in the city decide that they feel that building taller buildings would be beneficial to the city because it would bring more revenue into the city, or that taller buildings would allow for more spacious residential apartments or offices, or that they only want to maintain the height limitations in some streets which have a lot of historic buildings on them, then that should be their decision, and not the Federal government’s decision.

While the city government does oversee the city’s police force, because there are so many diplomats and politicians from around the world who routinely meet with people within our Federal government, and because there are so many foreign embassies located within Washington, D.C., the Secret Service has to work closely with the city police so that they can protect domestic as well as foreign politicians as they travel throughout the city.  That would not likely need to change at all if Washington, D.C. achieves statehood status.  And the military would still be called in to respond to emergencies such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters within the city, statehood status would not change that either.

Since the early 1800’s, there have been numerous proposals for elevating Washington, D.C.’s status from a federal district to a state.  Some of the proposals include allowing Congress to make the decision regarding statehood status, and other proposals are to allow for a referendum in which the residents of the city itself would vote on their status as a potential state.  The decision to allow for a referendum would have to come either from Congress or from our next President, because the district is presently administered directly by our Federal government. 

Proposals for a referendum include adding the issue of proposed statehood status to the ballot during the general elections in any given year, while other proposals advocate for a special election / by-election which would specifically address the issue of proposed statehood status and no other issues.  I feel that the decision should be left to the voters of the city, and so either Congress or our next President should authorize a referendum.

There is an alternate proposal which would make Washington, D.C. a part of Maryland.  Personally, I feel that this proposal makes a lot less sense than statehood status, specifically for the same reasons that our country’s fathers did not want our nation’s capital city to be in Maryland or Virginia at the end of the 18th century.  Our national capital city is just that- it is our capital city, we want it to be independent of any other state.  The political issues of Maryland and Virginia should not affect the day to day workings of our capital city in any way.

In recent years, there’s actually not been much opposition from either the Democrats or the Republicans for statehood status for Washington, D.C.  However, there’s not been terribly much support for it either.  The leadership of both of our two major parties officially state that they do support proposed statehood status for Washington, D.C.  When Bill Clinton was President, he’d stated that he supports proposed statehood status, and President Obama has stated that he also supports it. 

Bernie Sanders had been a cosponsor of the New Columbia Admission Act.  Hillary Clinton has said that she would support Washington, D.C. statehood status. So far, The Donald have been silent on this issue. Most of the candidates from the two major parties however seem to feel that this is a comparably minor issue, they don’t mention it very often (almost never, in fact) during their campaigns, and we seem to only hear them mention it when journalists specifically ask them about their views on the issue. 

The leadership of the two major parties seem to feel that this is an issue which will effect only the (approximately) 670,000 people who live in Washington, D.C., and they don’t seem to view this as an issue which will affect the entire country.  However, like all of the countries in the world, we do in fact have only one (1) capital city, and so the prosed statehood status for Washington, D.C. would actually affect the entire country.

The issue of proposed statehood status for Washington, D.C. is actually not terribly controversial.

The issue receives very little coverage in the mainstream news media because the candidates from the 2 major parties hardly ever mention it, nor do most politicians outside of Washington, D.C. itself.

This is because most of the politicians from the 2 major parties within our Federal government view this as a minor issue and a very low priority- it does not mean that they’d actually actively oppose a proposal for a referendum.  Our Federal government actually has nothing at all to gain by prohibiting the city from officially gaining statehood status.  In fact, Congress actually has more to lose by keeping Washington, D.C. as a district rather than a state, because Congress has to devote time each year to reviewing the city’s annual budget and expenses while they could be working on quite a few other issues.

Many prominent and credible journalists seem to feel that the Democrats would likely be more supportive of Washington, D.C. statehood because they predict the population of the city would likely elect Democrats to fill the two new Senate seats that would be created as a result.  These predictions come from the fact that since the mid 1970’s, all of the mayors of Washington, D.C. have been Democrats.

I however differ.  Like all cities, the population of Washington, D.C. shifts, the neighborhoods shift, there are quite a few very complex issues involving the city, and so it’s really not possible to predict how the population of the city will vote in future decades.  This is an issue which would serve to benefit everyone- people who support both of the two major parties as well as people who opt to align themselves with or join any of our “third” parties. If we look back at the entirety of the 20th century, the Presidents Of The Boards Of Commissioners Of Washington, D.C. (which was the position which had been the predecessor of the mayor) were a mix of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. 

The rules for the Board Of Commissioner had stated that the board was required to include at least one (1) Democrat as well as at least one (1) Republican, though once the Federal government had selected the people who would constitute the membership of the board, it was the board itself who decided amongst themselves who would become the President Of The Board. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2014, there were 353,000 registered voters in Washington, D.C. 

In recent decades, one of the very few issues which most people in the city do seem to agree on is that they favor statehood status.  The support crosses party lines, it crosses income levels as well as the ages of voters, based on polls.  People do not want to be living in a federal “district” any longer. From the 1970’s through 2000, most of the support for Washington, D.C. statehood came from the Washington, D.C. Statehood Party.  By the late 1990’s, people within the Washington, D.C. Statehood Party and people within the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Green Party realized that they were largely supporting many of the same issues, so the two parties merged to form the D.C. Statehood Green Party. There are also some more minor issues which also have to be addressed regarding the proposed statehood status for Washington, D.C. which are worth mentioning. 

Firstly, we would in fact have to add a 51st star to our flag, just as we added a 49th and a subsequent 50th star in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii gained statehood status.  The name of the city would also have to be changed, because the city of Washington would no longer actually be located within the “district” of Columbia, for the very obvious reason that the district itself would be officially dissolved.

The Washington D.C. Statehood Green Party does have a proposed design for a 51 star flag, they do not have a current proposal regarding renaming the city.  We might assume from the proposed “New Columbia Admission Act” that “New Columbia” might become one of the proposed new names for the state, so the city would actually be “Washington, Columbia” (the city of Washington, in the state of Columbia or New Columbia.)

For many decades, candidates for both houses of Congress have made statements during their campaigns that they promise their constituents that they’ll show those politicians in Washington that the people of their state or their Congressional district matter and that the politicians in Washington cannot forget about their constituency.  Perhaps it is time for those politicians in Washington to pay some attention to the interests of the people who live within walking distance of the Capitol building too 

Further Reading: As I mentioned earlier, in the early 2000’s, the Washington, D.C. statehood movement merged with the Washington, D.C. branch chapter of the Green Party.  For further reading about The Washington, D.C. Statehood Green Party, the link to their website is here Further information about the history of the Washington, D.C. statehood movement and the current issues relating to proposals for statehood status can be found in the City Of Washington, D.C.’s website.    

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *