Why shouldn’t the District become a state? Opponents at Monday’s U.S. Senate hearing cited the grave threat that the city might gain full authority over its snowplows.
You read that right. According to this objection, a self-governing District might intimidate Congress through its control of basic services for Capitol Hill.
Statehood “would make the federal government dependent on an independent state, New Columbia, for everything from electrical power to water, sewers, snow removal, police and fire protection,” Roger Pilon, a constitutional scholar for the libertarian Cato Institute, testified.
In Pilon’s defense, his argument is rooted in James Madison’s long-ago desire to prevent any individual state from unduly influencing Congress.
But that concern is completely outdated. The republic has survived the location of quite a few important federal agencies in self-governing states. The Pentagon in Virginia and National Security Agency in Maryland, for instance.
Pilon’s point was typical of the specious criticisms raised at the hearing about the proposal to convert most of the District into the 51st state. In an eye-opening revelation, opponents didn’t even bother to offer an alternative to extend elementary democratic rights to more than 600,000 District residents.
The message to the District was: We’ll collect your taxes and let your kids die in our wars, but your lack of representation in Congress is your tough luck.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) conceded at one point that “D.C. residents suffer an injustice . . . by not having a vote.” But he then listed a series of objections to the proposed statehood bill — all of them flawed — without recommending how to correct the inequity.
Although the statehood bill isn’t going anywhere this year, the hearing succeeded in raising public awareness of the District’s second-class status. Kudos to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) for calling it.
Statehood is the quickest way to give the city’s citizens full congressional representation and control of their own affairs. The District of Columbia would continue to exist. It would just shrink dramatically to include the Capitol, the White House, the Mall and a few other sites. The rest of the city would become New Columbia.
The hearing also served to expose the weaknesses in opponents’ arguments. None of the three principal constitutional objections cited by Coburn and Pilon was sound:
■“Congress lacks authority to shrink the District.” History disproves this criticism. Since the District was created, Congress has altered its borders twice. In the second instance, in 1846, the legislature handed Alexandria and Arlington back to Virginia.
■“Maryland’s consent is necessary.” The theory here is that Maryland gets a say because it gave up the land originally. But it ceded the land unconditionally. Maryland probably wouldn’t object, anyway. Both Maryland senators are co-sponsors of the statehood bill.
■“The 23rd Amendment would need to be repealed.” Nobody disagrees about this, and the difficulty is easy to overcome. The 23rd Amendment granted District residents the right to vote for president, starting in 1964. If it remained in force, then anyone still residing inside the shrunken District — perhaps just the presidential couple — would control three electoral votes. But the statehood bill provides for speedy repeal of the 23rd Amendment. Backers ought to go further and revise the bill so it grants statehood only when the process of repealing the amendment is completed.
Some critics throw up these phony objections purely from partisan self-interest. District statehood would create two safe Democratic seats in the closely contested Senate.
But opponents at the hearing didn’t even pay lip service to a proposal, often advanced by conservatives, that would grant District voting rights without expanding the Senate. That’s the plan called “retrocession,” in which most of the District would be returned to Maryland.
The silence about possible alternatives suggests that the District faces a much larger obstacle: Opponents feel no shame about simply ignoring the District’s plight.
What to do? I think the District needs to launch an ambitious, well-funded effort to educate the American public about its situation.
Mayoral candidate and D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large) has made an interesting proposal to lobby state legislatures to pass resolutions in favor of District statehood.
Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University, suggests that District citizens contribute half their campaign contributions to an effort to win full voting rights. He said individual city residents made a total of $138 million in such donations during the 2012 election cycle, so even a fraction of that would pay for an impressive effort.
The challenge is large but the cause is hard to beat.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.