D.C. Statehood and the Death of Compromise Politics

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (left) attend a joint news conference in advance of a House vote on a District of Columbia statehood bill on Capitol Hill, June 25, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The House Democrats’ D.C. statehood vote is, as NR’s editorial notes, just for show: D.C. statehood would require a constitutional amendment, and there is no possibility of one passing. The fact that D.C. statehood would only increase the political power of Democrats is one obvious reason it is a non-starter for Republicans, and both sides therefore play to the gallery, with no incentive for Democrats to moderate their request.

Partisan or regional politics has always been part of statehood admissions. It was part of the Alaska/Hawaii tandem in 1959, part of Benjamin Harrison and Congressional Republicans’ waving through six new Western states in 1889-90, and of course part of the many free/slave statehood fights between the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the admission of Kansas in 1861 and secession of West Virginia from Virginia in 1863. Still, our politics has grown uniquely resistant to bipartisan deal-making, and all the more so when issues directly affecting the partisan balance of power are at issue.

But what if compromise were possible? Are there other ways to give D.C. residents more say without running into the same obstacles of policy or politics? There are, and some are better than others, but they each have their own drawbacks. Consider three possibilities.

Alternative 1: Partial Retrocession to Maryland

The District of Columbia was limited by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to a maximum size of “ten miles square,” but the Constitution specifies no minimum size. In theory, the district under federal control could be contracted, much as the Vatican was contracted in 1870 when it lost control of Rome, to the district immediately around the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, etc. This would likely avoid the constitutional issue: D.C. consisted originally of land from Maryland and Virginia, and the Alexandria and Arlington sections of Virginia were returned (retroceded) in 1846-47. Giving land back could be done by Act of Congress and, possibly, the consent of Maryland to take the land back (less of a stumbling block today than a few decades ago when D.C. was much poorer and a fiscal basket case).

A retroceded Washington could adopt its own self-government without federal control (or subsidies) outside of the federal district. But retaining federal authority around the core governing district would ameliorate the problem of having the federal district’s physical security dependent on a hostile state government.

Politically, shifting D.C. residents into Maryland would likely give Maryland one or two more House seats and electoral votes, expanding a blue state’s power while making it harder for another Larry Hogan-style Republican to govern the state in the future. So, in that sense, it would be a win for Democrats for the foreseeable future, albeit one that gives them no added Senate representation and extinguishes the case for statehood. But without repeal of the 23rd Amendment, partial retrocession would leave D.C. with three electoral votes and nearly no voters, a bizarre anomaly that could lead to some mischief. If the district is small enough, it could give partisan Republican staffers a greater incentive to live there in order to make those electoral votes newly competitive.

Alternative 2: Expanded Statehood

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Democrats want D.C. statehood badly enough to offer Republicans a deal that is not completely one-sided: The new state (still possibly excluding a core federal district) could be expanded to include not only the current District of Columbia but also a contiguous area of Northern Virginia built around the parts of Virginia that were originally incorporated in the District (such as Alexandria and Arlington County) and potentially expanded to include all of Fairfax County and its constituent independent cities. This unquestionably would require both a constitutional amendment and the consent of Virginia, which (unlike in 1863) is not currently at war with the federal government and thus constitutionally can’t just have land stripped away from it without its consent.

For D.C. residents, adding Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax would give the new state real heft: It would bring the population over two million, larger than 15 states, and give it multiple House seats and electoral votes. Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax residents would be governed closer to home and brought within a political community with which they ought to have more in common than with the populations of southern and western Virginia. The political advantage for Republicans is that the remaining area of Virginia would instantly become much more competitive for the GOP.

Of course, Alexandria and Fairfax residents might prefer to avoid the likely higher taxes and demands of being part of D.C., while downstate Virginia Democrats would almost certainly rebel at losing the political advantage of their alliance with the D.C.-suburb parts of their state. With Virginia’s government almost totally blue now, it is difficult to see how that deal could be made.

Alternative 3: Dual Federal Citizenship

Another halfway solution, which again would require a constitutional amendment, is to leave D.C. as a federal district, but permit D.C. residents to join the Maryland (or, less promisingly, Virginia) electorate for presidential and congressional purposes. This would have some of the same political effects as partial retrocession, except that it would abolish D.C.’s three electoral votes and have no effect in the Senate, while still adding one or two House seats and electoral votes to Maryland. That tradeoff would make Republicans happy, maybe happy enough to strike the deal. Of the three alternatives, this is the one that is closest to real partisan compromise, but it leaves the specific question of federal control of D.C.’s local government unresolved. Then again, a grand bargain could also meet D.C. residents’ more local concerns with some additional concessions such as constitutionally guaranteeing D.C.’s current home rule (which is, for now, a creature of federal statute) and perhaps restricting some of Congress’s powers to legislate for the District.

As usual, creative thinking isn’t really on the table right now. But if the proponents of D.C. statehood are sincere about not just seeking a partisan power grab, there are other ways they could go to offer a deal and stop tilting at windmills.





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