Statehood for the District of Columbia

A civil right and a national conundrum

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For those of us who live some distance from our nation’s capital, a trip there is a special vacation destination. While there, we visit the headquarters of our federal government and our great national museums like the Smithsonian museums, including the beloved Air and Space Museum. It’s a special place with those grand 19th century buildings, memorials to presidents and to wars and their soldiers. Few of us who’ve visited will ever forget the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool. Maybe you were there to see the cherry trees in bloom? Or, to visit the newer, wonderful museums dedicated to Native Americans and African Americans.

People who live in “the District” have other experiences. It is their home, it’s where they buy gas, groceries and get mail. Those people are Americans just as Hoosiers are, but residents of the District of Columbia have no voting representation in Congress and they lack full control over their local affairs. Washingtonians have fought for statehood, or for some semblance thereof, for 200 years. Currently the District of Columbia pays more taxes into the federal coffers than 22 states, but they have no say in Congress about how to spend those dollars. They have a delegate in the House of Representatives, but she (Eleanor Holmes Norton has been that representative for almost three decades) has no vote.

Over 705,000 Americans live within the bounds of Washington, D.C. In polling, between 80-90% of residents favor statehood, the most straightforward way to achieve voting/representation rights. The power is granted to Congress to admit new states to the Union (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1). For the first time in 200 years, on June 26, 2020, the House of Representatives voted to declare the city to be the nation’s 51st state, a legislative milestone that supporters say begins to right historical wrongs. The bill passed 232-180.

Such a vote has been a long time coming. James Madison who was crucial to the establishment of an independent federal government district also made clear that all those living there should have voting rights. That didn’t happen. It’s no wonder that Washingtonians have been crying “Taxation without Representation” for over 200 years, barely two decades after the colonies had called out England’s unfairness to the colonies by saying the same thing.

The choice of the place where the capital is located was itself a compromise between North and South with both Maryland and Virginia ceding land for the capital. (Virginia’s was later receded back.) When George Washington selected the land next to Georgetown for the capital, everyone living there was immediately disenfranchised. This rankled, but it took well into the 20th century for a bill ever to get out of Congressional committee to try to redress this wrong. In 1921, Senator Wesley Livsey Jones (R-WA) introduced a bill that called for Congress to treat Washington, D.C. as a state. Today, both Republican and Democratic parties in D.C. favor voting rights and representation, but at a national level, this situation is not well understood. While those living in D.C. favor by huge margins becoming a state, they find themselves in the position of women wanting the vote in the 19th and early 20th centuries: They must rely on others to make their case since, ironically, they have no voting power to give those wishes clout. The arguments for Washington, D.C. statehood are very strong ones and are supported by a broad spectrum of civil rights organizations and by churches all across the nation.

With over 700,000 people, D.C. has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming and an equivalent population to North Dakota and Alaska. As noted already, D.C. pays more taxes than almost half of the states. D.C. has no voice in appointing judges because it has no senators. D.C. (despite its highly effective city council led by Mayor Muriel Bowser) is subject to the will of Congress for both its laws and its budget passed locally. (D.C.’s city council has had a balanced budget for the past 17 years.)

On a broader scale, D.C.’s lack of representation in our national legislature is both a civil rights and a human rights issue. It is striking, if not disturbing, to learn that D.C. is the only national capital in the world whose residents are deprived of representation in its national legislative body.

For many voters’ rights groups, including the League of Women Voters, this is a straightforward denial of citizens’ right to vote and their right to be represented in Congress. This should be rectified since nearly 3/4 of a million people are deprived of rights that the rest of us take for granted.

Other alternatives to statehood have been proposed to offer the residents of the District some power. It has been suggested that Maryland could reclaim the District, all except the actual federal buildings, and D.C. residents would then vote as citizens of Maryland.

Some question statehood because of the District’s small size (68 square miles) and its entirely urban character.

As an American citizen, you are urged to read about the history of our capital, the place where our Capitol and other national treasures are located, and the place where hundreds and thousands of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens live. You will learn a lot.

 

The League of Women Voters, open to men as well as women, is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website: www.lwvmontcoin.org or send a message to LWV, P.O. Box 101, Crawfordsville, IN 4933.

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