It was a historic acknowledgment, with potential implications for a future court case. It showed that the noble constitutional concerns that Republicans typically cite for opposing statehood are a smokescreen. Trump admitted that the GOP wants to deny congressional representation to taxpaying D.C. residents because it doesn’t like how they’d vote.
Second was last week’s decision by both Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs to join with the District in waiting to reopen their economies until covid-19 cases decline further. They broke with most of the rest of Virginia and Maryland, which moved to Phase 1 of reopening.
These choices highlight how the District and its suburbs form a single, interconnected region, which would function more efficiently if not administered by three separate governing structures.
The fact is that if we create a new state in the region, it would make more sense for it to include not just the District, but the suburbs as well. Fairfax and Montgomery counties have a lot more in common with each other than Fairfax does with Virginia coal country, or Montgomery does with the Eastern Shore.
Of course, nobody is trying to redraw the map that way. But new administrative structures such as interstate compacts could be created to strengthen the region’s self-governance on issues such as housing, transportation and public health.
Trump’s comments to the New York Post in a May 4 Oval Office interview marked the first time that a Republican president dared speak the truth that the GOP has sought to conceal.
“D.C. will never be a state,” Trump said. “You mean, District of Columbia a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic — Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen.”
He went on to say that because the District is “100 percent Democrat, basically,” the Republicans would be “very, very stupid” to allow statehood.
Trump’s arithmetic regarding the House was wrong. The District’s population would give it only one member of the House, not three, four or five, as he said in different places in the interview.
That’s no surprise. Trump has a long history of struggles with numbers, such as regarding the size of his inauguration crowd or an adequate coronavirus testing level.
The surprise was his candor about Republican motivations. Usually the GOP says it opposes statehood because the Constitution specifies that the seat of government shall be a district “not exceeding 10 miles square” that Congress controls.
But the carefully crafted bill proposing D.C. statehood — which the House may approve this year — respects the constitutional requirement. It would shrink the federal district to an enclave including the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court. The rest of the District would become the new state, finally giving full voting rights to an entity with a larger population than Wyoming and Vermont.
Statehood advocates welcomed Trump’s comments for laying bare his thinking.
Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote, said the high-level pushback showed that the statehood campaign was gaining momentum and worrying opponents.
“Nothing moves forward without resistance,” Shuff said. He referred to a famous comment that is often mistakenly attributed to Gandhi but instead originated with a U.S. labor activist: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Said Shuff: “We’re transitioning from the laughing phase to the fighting phase.”
Walter Smith, an attorney who helped draft the District’s proposed state constitution, said statehood defenders could use Trump’s comments to rebut arguments if opponents file a future lawsuit aimed at blocking statehood on constitutional grounds.
“I think it would be fair game to introduce what the president said the rationale was,” said Smith, executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “The fact that the president acknowledged it was the reason, especially when we all know that is the reason, I think it would influence some judges.”
Turning to the region as a whole, we already knew that the Washington metro area is a single economic unit. Now the coronavirus has reminded us that we’re a single biological unit, as well. In both Virginia and Maryland, the D.C. suburbs have had higher rates of coronavirus cases than rural parts of the states.
But to act on that reality for the sake of public health, and join the District in delaying reopening, both Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs had to spurn moves by Richmond and Annapolis to relax restrictions. Northern Virginia jurisdictions had to write Gov. Ralph Northam (D) formally requesting the authority to do so.
Similar challenges have arisen elsewhere in the country, where states, cities and counties have adopted a patchwork of differing responses.
“A pandemic knows no borders, but at every turn our policies are confined by them,” researchers Tracy Hadden Loh and Annelies Goger wrote in a Brookings Institution report this month.
The problem has broad roots, as the suburbs struggle to pry support from their state capitals for priorities such as transit, roads and housing.
“The issue of rural-dominated state politics interfering with efficient governance in major metro areas is a common theme that runs way back in American politics,” Loh, a Brookings fellow, said in an interview.
Noting that Northern Virginia has received little state aid for housing, she said, “There is no affordable housing crisis in big chunks of Virginia, but there is an acute affordable housing crisis in our region.”
Loh said interstate compacts, such as the one that governs Metro, or regionwide taxing authorities, could be created to address the region’s common challenges.
For now, the suburbs and the District have managed largely to overcome fragmented governance and respond to the coronavirus pandemic in a somewhat coordinated way. But the path back to normality will be a long one, and the bumps are sure to pop up again.