Say 'No' to Statehood for Washington, D.C.

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Washington, June 26, 2020 | comments

The headlines have been filled with toppled, vandalized, and targeted statues over the past few weeks, including those of founding presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But these aren’t the only efforts to tear down physical representations of our history. This week, the Party of Jefferson — or rather what it has turned into — is targeting another tangible legacy of the Founders’ vision: the federal district of Washington, D.C. 

To put it simply, Democrats’ current bill for D.C. statehood ignores more than the plain text of the Constitution; it completely disregards the history and the reasoning that helped create it.

When the Founders gathered in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, they had a difficult task in front of them. Through debates and compromises, they had to come up with a national government, that would govern and hold together thirteen sovereign states, each wary of the others’ ambitions. 

Above all else, the Founders were concerned with power, and particularly the power that states would have relative to each other, the federal government, and their people. And so, in several different ways, they came up with a constitutional structure meant to restrain what James Madison — the Father of our Constitution —  called “the encroaching nature of power.” 

One of these precautions ended up being the District of Columbia as the nation’s capital: a ten-by-ten mile federal area that no state would control. Instead, all the states and the people would reign over the designated area through Congress.

The intent behind the provision is clear enough from the text of the Constitution, which vests Congress with the power to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the federal district as may become necessary.

Madison explained the importance of the district’s independence in Federalist Number 43. The goal, he explains, was to keep all states on equal footing with one another and not give any one of them the undue power and influence of containing the branches of the federal government: 

“Nor would it be proper for the places on which the security of the entire Union may depend, to be in any degree dependent on a particular member of it. All objections and scruples are here also obviated, by requiring the concurrence of the States concerned, in every such establishment.”

Madison did not make this argument in a vacuum. In fact, one of the incidents that was undoubtedly fresh in his memory has a familiar ring to recent events. 

In 1783, the state government of Pennsylvania failed to send in the militia to protect the Confederation Congress during a mutiny of former Revolutionary soldiers, forcing members of the legislature to flee Philadelphia for Princeton, New Jersey. 

Likewise, recent events have also shown us that the federal government still has to step in to defend its people and institutions during moments of unrest in the nation. When D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser recently failed to stop the chaos in the District, it was the orders of Attorney General Bill Barr that brought order back to a capital city. But despite this recent display, Mayor Bowser somehow expects the D.C. police to become state police overnight and carry the burden it now shares with the federal government all by itself. 

It is true: the citizens of the District of Columbia live in the only 68-square-miles – less than one percent of the size of most states – in the entire union where they cannot be citizens of a state. But that is by design: the federal government cannot be seated in a state or the others become diminished. 

One of the biggest complaints about this design is that district residents don’t have a voting member of Congress. The framers dealt with this concern as well. At New York’s ratifying convention in July of 1788, Alexander Hamilton put forward an amendment to the proposed Constitution’s District clause that would have given District residents the ability to get representation in Congress once they grew to a certain size. But that amendment was rejected. From this, we can see that the Framers considered and rejected granting congressional representation to the District in the Constitution.

The history is clear, and we ought to listen to it instead of tearing it down. The current proposal before Congress may ride a wave of sentiment amplified by current events, but it completely ignores the importance of the District of Columbia’s status under our constitutional system. Putting aside the cold, hard fact that making the district into a state requires a constitutional amendment rather than simple act of Congress, doing so in any form would accomplish the exact opposite of what the framers intended for the seat of our national government. 


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