For more than 200 years, the residents of Washington, D.C., have been subjected to systemic inequality and denied the full rights of citizenship that the residents of states enjoy—including voting representation in Congress.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 51 to remedy this imbalance and make Washington the 51st state. This column explores the history underlying D.C. residents’ fight for their full rights as Americans, including efforts to both advance and suppress statehood. The district’s more than 700,000 residents deserve not only to have a vote in Congress, but also to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship without being subjected to the uneven and punitive oversight of the federal government and Congress in particular.
Taxation without representation
For much of Washington’s history, “taxation without representation” has been both the unofficial motto and rallying cry of its residents. The slogan is a remnant from the seeds of the American Revolution—and a reference to the fact that the more than 700,000 residents of the district pay federal taxes and fight in wars, all while being denied the full rights that the 50 states enjoy. In fact, Washington’s residents pay more taxes than residents in 22 states and pay more per capita to the federal government than any state—yet they have no votes in Congress.
Washington has had various governing models and levels of franchise throughout history; all have fallen short of full statehood. In 1790, following a compromise struck between rival factions led by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, a new national capital was established in the South, in exchange for the federal government’s assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debts. When the capital was officially moved in 1800, the federal government controlled the district and granted it no votes in Congress, nor in the Electoral College. Through much of the 1800s, Washington was governed by a popularly elected city council and an appointed, then later elected, mayor. That system would be later replaced by a territorial governor appointed by the president, followed by an appointed commission that would last until the mid 1900s.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, more than 25,000 Black Americans moved to Washington, D.C. As a result, Black citizens made up about one-third of the population during the late 1800s. After Black men obtained the right to vote via the Reconstruction Act of 1867, they began seeking office in the D.C. government; the first Black municipal office holder was elected in 1868. This period coincided with social and economic success for the district’s Black residents, which would later meet vicious and violent backlash. Prior to that, in 1874, Congress removed the district’s ability to elect its own leaders, in part to quash the growing Black political power; instead, Congress opted for a three-person board of commissioners that the president appointed, which governed the district until 1967.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s and activism of the 1970s were a catalyst for democratic advancement for the residents of the district. The era saw the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961, granting residents the right to vote for president and vice president for the first time. In the 1970s, the Home Rule Act allowed residents to elect their own mayor and city council, and in 1971, Washington gained a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.
Congress also passed a constitutional amendment in 1978 that would have finally granted Washington two voting senators and a voting House representative—but it failed to receive ratification from enough states in time to be enacted. Under the current home rule status, Congress maintains the right to override legation passed by the D.C. City Council and signed by the mayor, in addition to retaining authority over the district’s budget. To this day, Washington, D.C., remains the only national capital in the democratic world whose citizens do not have equal voting and representation rights.
The federal government’s heavy-handed oversight of Washington, D.C.
Beyond the negative impacts of the lack of voting representation, the district’s inability to act as the arbiter of its own laws leaves it subject to the political whims of Congress. While Congress and the president can nullify laws passed by the D.C. government with a resolution of disapproval, they have only ever exercised that ability three times. Far more frequently, Congress has chosen to override the decisions of local elected officials and voters in Washington through the appropriations process.
Over the years, Congress has attempted to supersede D.C. laws in various policy areas, including marijuana legalization, marriage equality and the extension of domestic partner rights, reproductive rights, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Furthermore, conservative members of Congress routinely introduce stand-alone legislation designed to force unwanted policies on the residents of Washington.
The district’s status has also resulted in disparate treatment in receiving emergency congressional aid in the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. In early March 2020, federal lawmakers passed a $2 trillion relief package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included a minimum of $1.25 billion guaranteed to each state. Washington, D.C., however, only received $500 million—a marked departure from the normal practice of treating the district like a state for federal funding purposes.
The district also finds itself at a disadvantage in controlling the actions of federal law enforcement on its own streets. On June 1, 2020, when protestors peacefully gathered in Lafayette Square to protest systemic racism and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people at the hands of police, they were met with extreme force by federally controlled military and law enforcement units—including unidentified federal law enforcement agents under the direct control of the Trump administration.
The violent crackdown was made possible by the invocation of the federal government’s broad powers over the district, including control of the D.C. National Guard—the only one out of 54 states and territories to report to the president. The attacks on protestors involved the deployment of rubber bullets and tear gas without warning or provocation and the use of military helicopters throughout the night to intimidate and disperse crowds. The Trump administration floated, then subsequently abandoned, the unprecedented idea of federalizing the district’s police force as part of the crackdown. Since Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser lacks the authority of a governor or some large city mayors, she was left with few options other than rhetorically opposing the Trump administration’s actions and imploring governors to call back their National Guard units.
Statehood opposition: The role of race and politics
Statehood opponents routinely tie their arguments to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution, which outlines the general provisions for federal authority over the seat of government. Opponents also rely on the justification offered by James Madison in the Federalist Papers: There exists an “indispensable necessity of complete [federal] authority at the seat of government.” However, legal scholars and statehood advocates have long noted that the Constitution only outlines the requirements for preserving a federal enclave to house the seat of government and does not preclude Congress from granting statehood to Washington outside the borders of that enclave. Creating a new state is not an unprecedented action; Congress has done so for 37 other states through simple legislative action.
Within Congress, opposition to D.C. statehood has relied on both partisan objections and racist counterfactual arguments attacking the fitness of the district’s historically Black leaders and population.
Conservatives, echoed by President Donald Trump in May 2020, have argued that the district’s overwhelming population of Democratic voters would elect two Democrats to the Senate and send a Democrat to the House. Rather than allow the district’s residents to make their own political determinations, congressional Republicans opt to stymie residents’ right to representation in order to preserve the balance of power in the Senate.
In addition, like in much of American society, race has long been a dividing line in statehood debates, and the question of slavery remained central to statehood admission up through the Civil War. Throughout the 20th century, large factions of Congress historically held views that only territories with majority-white populations deserved statehood. In the case of the district, where African Americans have been the majority or near-majority of the population since the 1950s and more than one-third of the population since the Civil War, the statehood debate has involved these arguments as well.
In the 1870s, when the district’s Black population was on the rise and the federal government stripped the city of its ability to elect its leaders, Sen. John Tyler Morgan of Alabama—who was also a Confederate general and owner of enslaved people —argued that it was necessary to “deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District” in order to suppress Black political power. In 1993, when a D.C. statehood measure was defeated in the House, members attacked the district’s history of Black political leadership and argued, “Let’s take it [Washington] back and clean it up.”
Alarmingly, this trend continues today. In making a case against H.R. 51 in 2020, Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) argued that the district was “not equipped to shoulder the burden of statehood,” and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R) claimed that Mayor Muriel Bowser and the late Mayor Marion Barry—both Black Americans—would be untrustworthy as governors. Cotton also attempted to justify Washington’s status by noting that other less populous and less diverse states were “well-rounded” and “working-class”—a thinly veiled racist swipe at the residents of the district.
Statehood advances: The significance of H.R. 51
In November 2016, the residents of Washington, D.C., voted overwhelmingly for self-governance and statehood when they approved a ballot measure, by a margin of 79 percent, that would admit the district as the 51st state. And with the passage of H.R. 51 in June, the House voted for the first time since the establishment of Washington, D.C., to declare it the nation’s 51st state. The bill would incorporate the residential and commercial areas of the district into the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, and would preserve a smaller federally controlled district containing the seat of government to continue serving as the nation’s capital.
Passage of this legislation in the House represents a huge step forward in expanding democratic representation. One area that the bill does not fully address, however, is the presidential electors whom the district appoints. The 23rd Amendment states: “The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct: A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State.”
Thus, even if Washington were shrunk to a smaller federal enclave, the residents of that enclave—including the first family—would choose three presidential electors. Selecting the electors by vote would result in significantly skewed representation and an unfair bias in favor of the sitting president or the candidate the president supports. However, an easy remedy exists: The 23rd Amendment states that electors are appointed “in such manner as Congress may direct.” Congress could direct in statute that the electors vote for the candidate who wins the majority of the national popular vote. This would address the specific problem with the district’s electors, as well as reduce the bias in the Electoral College that has resulted in two of the last three presidents winning an election without a majority of the votes cast.
Native Washingtonians and recent arrivals alike have taken up the banner of this long-running statehood fight that dates back hundreds of years. It’s time for Congress to listen to them, end their second-class citizenship status, and enact H.R. 51. It’s time to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state of the union.
William Roberts is the managing director for Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress. Sam Berger is the vice president of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center.