From a national political standpoint, it’s not much more complicated than that. Democratic leaders are happy to elevate the representation issue because it’s useful and because it’s hard in the abstract to dispute. Republicans who oppose the measure, though, are usually (though not always) reluctant to simply say that they don’t want two more Democratic senators. So in the past few weeks as Congress has debated a bill that would make D.C. a state, we’ve heard a truly sweeping set of non-senator-related rationales for why that shouldn’t happen — claims that often end up being quickly debunked.
There was the claim by Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who in March declared that D.C.'s lack of car dealerships indicated that it was simply too provincial to be a state. D.C. does have car dealerships. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) was closer to the mark when he pointed out that D.C. has no mines, which is true. This, he said, is how “nations build wealth.” That D.C. has four times the gross domestic product of Wyoming, which has plenty of mines, does not appear to have dissuaded Grothman.
D.C. also has more people than Wyoming. Despite that, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) offered the complaint Tuesday that D.C. “wouldn’t even qualify as a singular congressional district,” citing its population. In fact, D.C. is more populous than dozens of congressional districts. It is smaller geographically, certainly, but that it actually has as many residents as so many congressional districts without a voting member of the chamber seems like an argument that runs contrary to what Mace intended.
On Wednesday morning, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) got into the act. He sent out a memo detailing reasons that D.C. shouldn’t be granted statehood. Two of the three were bad.
The first was that D.C. can’t be a state, under the constraints of the Constitution. This has been addressed many times before and centers on the Constitution granting Congress the right “to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over “the Seat of the Government of the United States,” a region “not exceeding ten Miles square.”
The legislation under consideration would take D.C. and constrain the “seat of the government” to an area encompassing most of the federal buildings required for governance: “the principal federal monuments, the White House, the Capitol Building, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, and the federal executive, legislative, and judicial office buildings located adjacent to the Mall and the Capitol Building.” That becomes the federal district under this plan, and the rest of the current city can become a state.
Scalise’s second argument was even weaker. It centered on the idea that the city was incapable of governing itself, for three reasons.
The first is that the city’s government “relies heavily on Congress to ensure its financial solvency.” To bolster this point, Scalise points to a report from the Government Accountability Office titled “Structural Imbalance and Management Issues.” He also notes that the city “was criticized for its poor management of taxpayer money” — during the mayorship of Marion Barry.
Barry is not only not the current mayor of Washington, he has been dead for six years. The report Scalise refers to was issued in 2004.
The current reality is different. In February 2020, the city announced that its rainy-day fund — a pool of money meant to offset times in which the budget might be strained — had been fully funded to the tune of more than $1.4 billion. Then the pandemic hit, and city leaders warned that the budget would be hammered. It wasn’t. D.C. ended fiscal 2020 with a surplus of more than a half-billion dollars.
The second way in which Scalise tried to undermine D.C.'s ability to govern itself was by noting the recent increase in violent crime.
“Why should the District of Columbia be granted statehood,” his memo reads, “when it can’t even perform basic governmental duties like protecting its residents from criminals?”
The rate of homicides in D.C. in 2020 was unusually high, though well below the peaks seen in the early 1990s. There’s some irony in Scalise raising this point, though, since his state, Louisiana, is consistently among those with the highest murder rates in the country. (The New York Times wrote about it in March.) It is safe to assume Scalise believes Louisiana is still capable of being a state.
Scalise’s third argument against D.C.'s ability to self-govern was the rate of corruption in the city. As one columnist wrote in 2017, D.C. is the “most corrupt” place in the country. Oh, my apologies, I misread that. That column, which appeared in the New Orleans Advocate, was describing Louisiana as the most corrupt state in the union. The state has consistently scored poorly on the metric, suggesting that perhaps Scalise simply doesn’t want competition.
None of this is to say that D.C. is perfect or that crime and corruption aren’t problems to be addressed. It is, instead, to say that these are not reasons by themselves to deny statehood, given that other states, including Scalise’s, struggle along despite such problems.
This, at long last, brings us to Scalise’s third overall reason to reject D.C. statehood.
“Democrats want D.C. statehood,” his memo reads, “in order to gain two more Senate seats and circumvent the filibuster and solidify their control of the Legislative Branch.”
That’s true. Scalise could simply have written that down and sent that out as his memo. The result would have been an equally accurate description of his concerns, but he would have avoided our talking about how crime- and corruption-ridden his own state is.