The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The dumbing down of the D.C. statehood debate

With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, activists say they are in their strongest position yet to make D.C. the 51st state. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Amber Ferguson, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
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There are valid, philosophical reasons to argue that Washington, D.C., should not be a state or have voting rights in Congress — chief among them being that it was created as a federal district.

But as the House held a hearing on the topic Monday, much of the Republican pushback wasn’t about that. Instead it was about the idea that it would help Democrats and that D.C. should be deprived of statehood for various other circumstantial reasons.

It was a true commentary on the polarization of our current politics — the idea that anything can be best distilled to raw political power and should be opposed as such.

One of the biggest emerging arguments against D.C. statehood is a thoroughly partisan one. The idea isn’t so much that D.C. doesn’t necessarily deserve voting rights in the House and Senate, as much as that it would be a boon to Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pushed this idea extensively in recent years, casting both the ideas of D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood as thinly veiled efforts to gain Democratic votes.

Multiple Republican Congress members picked up on this at Monday’s hearing.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) suggestively asked D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) where she would place “the ideological makeup of D.C. relative to other cities in the country. Is it slightly Democratic, very Democratic, very Republican?” Foxx, as with virtually anyone with even a passing knowledge of our country’s politics, knows the answer. Bowser acknowledged that D.C. was “more than slightly Democratic,” understating things by a fair amount. (Washington gave each of the past four Democratic presidential nominees at least 90 percent of the vote.)

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) cast this as “a key part of the radical leftist agenda to reshape America,” likening it to the Green New Deal, among other things.

There is little doubt that Democrats’ interest in this owes in large part to the electoral advantage that would result. Given the party’s difficult math in keeping both the House and (especially) the Senate, having two additional senators from a reliably blue state would be big for them. This is also not an idea in which Democrats have always been in lockstep. The last time a D.C. statehood bill came up for a vote in the House before last year was in 1993, and more than 100 House Democrats voted against it.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) has even cited the political benefit, telling The Washington Post recently that “there’s a national political logic for it, too, because the Senate has become the principal obstacle to social progress across a whole range of issues.”

But the idea that this is part of a “radical leftist agenda” doesn’t really match up with the history. There was a time relatively recently in which plenty of Republicans thought that “taxation without representation” in the District was a bad look. Both conservative icon Barry Goldwater and former president Richard M. Nixon favored D.C. statehood. The 1972 and 1976 Republican Party platforms endorsed voting rights for Washington in the House and Senate. And both chambers of Congress in 1978 passed a proposed constitutional amendment (i.e. with two-thirds majorities) to that effect, with half of GOP senators voting for it. The amendment was not ratified by enough states.

Even Republican Donald Trump, after launching his presidential campaign in 2015, suggested that he was open to D.C. statehood (albeit at a time when he was opening up a D.C. hotel and the seriousness of his campaign was debatable). “I would like to do whatever is good for the District of Columbia, because I love the people,” Trump said at the time. Trump later reversed course, aligning with his party.

It’s fair to argue this is about partisan advantage, but that doesn’t mean it’s “radical,” and it doesn’t address the merits of the situation.

Other arguments advanced more novel ideas against statehood.

For example, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who just announced a primary challenge to Trump antagonist Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), suggested that Washington doesn’t deserve voting rights because it doesn’t have some of the things actual states do.

“D.C. would be the only state — the only state — without an airport, without a car dealership, without a capital city, without a landfill, without even a name of its own, and we can go on and on and on,” Hice said.

Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) also suggested D.C. doesn’t meet the qualifications of a state because of its lack of manufacturing, agriculture or mining -- “all three of which have to be very tiny compared to that what we get in a normal state.”

It would indeed be unusual for a city to be made a state, but D.C. does have car dealerships. It also has three airports in proximity with “Washington” in their names.

And none of the things Hice and Grothman mentioned are prerequisites for statehood. Indeed, there are literal countries without their own airports. In addition, Delaware, the home state of our current president, has gone for years until recently without regularly scheduled commercial flights. Washington also has a larger population than two states — Vermont and Wyoming — which some might argue is a better metric for voting rights than anything else.

(None of these arguments, it bears noting, would fare nearly so well against Puerto Rican statehood.)

One of the witnesses Monday had perhaps the most interesting take on why Washington doesn’t need statehood. The Heritage Foundation’s Zack Smith argued that D.C. has plenty of say, given that members of Congress might see lawn signs that could influence their votes.

“There’s no question that D.C. residents already impact the national debate,” Smith said. “For the members here today, how many of you saw D.C. statehood yard signs or bumper stickers or banners on your way to this hearing today? I certainly did. Where else in the nation could such simple actions reach so many members of Congress?”

The first problem is that many members of Congress aren’t really traveling through much of the residential neighborhoods of Washington — at least those filled with natives or longtime D.C. residents — to get to work. (Many live close to the Capitol, alongside lots of other federal government employees with less interest in the voting rights of the District’s residents.) The second is the idea that putting up a yard sign is hardly the same as having voting power. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted, D.C. residents have had “taxation without representation” on their license plates for years; it hasn’t yet convinced Congress to act.

Again there are reasons, philosophically, to think that Washington should remain a federal district. Even many Democrats used to feel this way, as little as a quarter-century ago (though there had been overwhelming support for congressional voting rights). At the national level, polling shows that the needle has moved toward statehood, but not in an overwhelming way. And you might even argue that such a change should require a constitutional amendment.

But that’s a tougher argument than pitching this as being about partisan politics, airports, landfills and yard signs.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that D.C. also has a larger population than Vermont.