Last week, H.R. 51, a bill that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state, successfully passed through the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on a party-line vote of 21-16. Is this a momentous development for us in the District of Columbia? After 218 years, since the Organic Act of 1801, are Washingtonians finally going to regain our full voting rights?
Unfortunately, a continuation of our disenfranchised status quo seems more likely. H.R. 51, like its parent, H.R. 1, which will not be brought up in the Senate (and face filibuster there), is a partisan attempt to reform our democratic republic. Partisans often promote this type of legislation because it tells their base that they are doing something, thus reinforcing their chances of re-election, without risk. However, reform legislation about the rules of the game – in this case, a push for complete D.C. voting rights that would yield 102 senators rather than 100 — should be nonpartisan.
As a third-generation Washingtonian, I have been an involved advocate for complete D.C. voting rights my entire adult life. Four years ago, I started a nonpartisan nonprofit political reform organization called Douglass County, Maryland. Douglass County, with the initials “DC”, and named after the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, is the fully enfranchised future of the District of Columbia. Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland. He died a second-class citizen by law not due to the color of skin but due to his residency in the District.
The technical term for our advocacy is “retrocession” and it has occurred once before. From 1846 to 1847, the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia fell back (or “retroceded”) into the state from which it came. This process can be repeated, on the northern side of the Potomac, realigning our nation’s capital once more. The geography of Douglass County, Maryland is identical to that of the would-be 51st state, belatedly being called “Douglass Commonwealth” by its chief sponsor, 15- term, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Creating Douglass County, Maryland is way forward for us in the District of Columbia, in Maryland, and in the nation as a whole. It is historically with precedent, economically compelling, politically advantageous, and provides opportunity to students, renters, and homeowners in D.C. and Maryland. Washington, D.C., functions very expensively as both a city and as a disenfranchised state. In addition, the federal government provides us, the residents, with special economic benefits in connection to Medicaid, out of state college tuition, and by running our judicial system. These are benefits that we stand to lose if we become either Douglass County or Douglass Commonwealth. However, with the former, a merger with Maryland, the state from which we were ceded, we will have the opportunity to create economies of scale in state and local government and thereby recoup these costs and gain other, larger state benefits, like access to a vibrant and strong public college and university system.
Congresswoman Norton, Mayor Muriel Bowser, the House Oversight Democrats, and the rest of the Democratic District of Columbia political establishment, have de-platformed any discussion of a second retrocession for decades. Not to be outdone, the Republicans in the House have consistently thrown out obtuse objections to 51st statehood in a vacuous vacant effort to defeat it in the House. They know that H.R. 51 is dead on arrival in the Senate, so why not play to their base too? Both parties play the partisan game.
By creating Douglass County, Maryland, residents of the District of Columbia will not only win our civil rights, but we will all do it a way that does not increase the size of the Senate for partisan purposes. My colleagues and I at Douglass County, Maryland will be reaching out to members of Congress when H.R. 51 is debated on the floor of the House. We will ask Congress to enhance the debate by offering amendments to the legislation that are based on a second retrocession – creating Douglass County, Maryland. Let us hope that we will find a champion who is interested in expanding our Democracy in a positive problem-solving manner rather than partisan scorekeeping in the interest of incumbency.