Should Washington, D.C., become the 51st state? | Pro/Con
Last month, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper reintroduced a bill that, if passed, would make Washington, D.C., the nation’s 51st state.
Last month, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper reintroduced a bill that, if passed, would make Washington, D.C., the nation’s 51st state. The bill is tightly tied to the ongoing debate over filibuster reform. Should the filibuster be eliminated, the measure would only need a simple majority (which the Democrats have) to pass. There’s currently no public Senate GOP support for D.C. statehood, but Carper’s bill is another step toward potential representation for the District, which some residents have been clamoring for for decades.
The Inquirer turned to Inquirer metro columnist and former D.C. resident Jenice Armstrong and Heritage Foundation legal scholar Zack Smith to debate: Should D.C. become the 51st state?
Yes: Taxation without representation is tyranny.
By Jenice Armstrong
My parents moved to Washington, D.C., from North Carolina in the late 1960s in search of better schools, job opportunities, and a better racial climate. In the northeast section of the city, four miles from the U.S. Capitol, my father and mother achieved their version of the American dream.
But one thing about life in their adopted hometown always rankled them, and it was that they didn’t have the same voting representation in Congress as other Americans.
That’s something most Americans take for granted. But not Washingtonians, and that’s a problem. Imagine spending decades living in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol and knowing that the important decisions being made inside impact you, but there was no one with any real power inside who could look out for your interests.
That was my parents’ fate.
They were law-abiding taxpayers who had fled the Jim Crow South and finally gotten the right to cast a ballot but didn’t have anyone in Congress who could vote on their behalf. When we had out-of-town visitors like my grandmother, my parents would dutifully take them to the Capitol steps for photos and past the grand offices where senators and representatives were housed, which must have been galling.
I remember how excited my dad was about getting his new license plates stamped with the saying “Taxation without representation.”
The rallying cry, “taxation without representation is tyranny,” dates back to America’s earliest days when colonists balked at paying taxes to Great Britain. Today, it’s a middle finger to those who want to block D.C. from achieving its rightful place as the nation’s 51st state.
People like to say that nobody really lives in D.C. and that many residents are only temporary transplants. There may be some truth to that old trope, but it ignores the tens of thousands of longtime residents like my parents, not to mention the many D.C. natives who can trace their roots back for decades.
“The rallying cry, ‘taxation without representation is tyranny’ ... [is] a middle finger to those who want to block D.C. from achieving its rightful place as the nation’s 51st state.”
Some are members of the D.C. police department and risked their lives rushing to the aid of Capitol Police on Jan. 6 to defend against right-wing insurgents intent on upsetting a democracy that affords D.C. residents no voting representation in Congress. Despite having a key part of the city under siege, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lacked the legal authority to summon National Guard troops, which makes no sense. Bowser says now is the time, since Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House.
“Washingtonians have waited over 200 years for the representation we deserve as American citizens,” she said. “And it is not just the residents of D.C. who bear the burden of our disenfranchisement. To paraphrase Dr. King: When any American is denied democracy, our entire nation is denied those voices and votes.”
I‘m proud of Bowser for continuing to push back against D.C. residents being treated like second-class citizens. They contribute more in federal taxes on a per-person basis than those in many states. They serve in the military. They serve on juries. With upwards of 700,000 residents, the city has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming, so don’t come at me saying that there aren’t enough people there.
There are, and they deserve the same rights as anyone else. It’s too late for my parents. They’re long gone and are buried in a cemetery just outside D.C. But it’s not too late for the nearly one million residents who still make their home there. After all, “taxation without representation is tyranny.”
Jenice Armstrong is a metro columnist for The Inquirer.
No: Recent moves for statehood are nothing more than a power grab.
By Zack Smith
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have to ask themselves two simple questions:
Are they going to support their pledges not to eliminate the legislative filibuster, or are they going to support the constitutionally dubious, thinly veiled power grab of making Washington, D.C., a state via simple legislation?
It’s not hyperbole to say that this latter path is nothing more than a naked power grab.
A recent article in the Washington Post Magazine quotes a D.C. statehood advocate as saying, “Democrats are shifting toward uniform support for statehood because they realize it’s one of the only ways they can gain power that’s equivalent to their numbers in the greater population.”
That same article goes on to say that one of the main advocacy groups pushing for D.C. statehood legislation is being backed by progressive “national organizations ... whose stalled policy agendas could advance with the help of senators from a new state.”
Of course, Manchin, Sinema, and other senators are on record as being opposed to going “nuclear” — or eliminating — the legislative filibuster.
They’re wise to do so. As my Heritage Foundation colleague Tom Jipping has written, “Eliminating the legislative filibuster would be a dangerous idea [because] it would destroy more of the limits on government that are necessary to protect our liberty.”
“There are good reasons not to support D.C. statehood, but if these senators want to support it, they can do so without supporting this particular pathway of achieving it.”
Furthermore, as Jipping explained, it’s been a part of the “Senate’s legislative process since the turn of the 19th century” and would frustrate the framers’ goal of having the Senate be a more deliberative body — Washington’s proverbial saucer that cools the House’s hot tea.
In an effort to give an “out” to these and other hesitant senators, advocacy groups are calling “for a ‘carve-out,’ which would eliminate the 60-vote threshold solely for the issue of statehood.”
But that would really be a pyrrhic victory for the filibuster.
Other groups are already calling for their own special interest carve-outs, too. For example, the Brady Campaign is pushing the Senate to push through gun control legislation with “a simple majority vote.”
Essentially, this path would be the filibuster’s death by a thousand cuts.
But let’s assume that the carve-out really would remain limited only to the admission of new states. Would that be abused in an attempt to fundamentally transform our system of government?
We don’t have to guess.
An article in the Harvard Law Review published in January 2020 argues that Congress has the power to admit D.C. as a state via simple legislation, but instead of admitting it as only one state, it should instead admit each “of the District’s 127 neighborhoods as states” and then ram through a series of radical proposals that would fundamentally transform the country.
Its author says that the “people should ... fight fire with fire, and use the unfair provisions of the Constitution to create a better system.”
It’s doubtful this proposal would do that since, in large part, the rule of law is the law of rules. Changing the rules only to benefit your side is what dictatorial regimes do.
There are good reasons not to support D.C. statehood, but if these senators want to support it, they can do so without supporting this particular pathway of achieving it.
After all, the Constitution itself provides an indisputable pathway for D.C. to achieve statehood through the Constitution’s Article V amendment process.
Zack Smith is a legal fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.