DC Statehood Debate Shows Big Changes Are Possible

June 25, 2020

For the first time in US history, the House of Representatives will vote to grant Washington, DC, full congressional representation. While press coverage has focused on the gains for Washingtonians, there are material benefits this move will bring for the rest of the country as well—especially as we address the deep wounds of institutionalized racism.

Take policing and urban policy more broadly. Yes, there are concrete benefits for DC: The last few weeks have shown National Guard members descend on protestors in the nation’s capital. Unlike governors across the US, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser does not control these forces. Fixing the chain of command will make it more accountable to district residents.

But other Americans will also see the benefits of DC statehood. A majority of the US population lives in just 10 states, giving rural and sparsely populated states an outsize voice. Voters in the state with the lowest population (Wyoming) are 67 times more powerful than their brethren in California, the most populous. This inequality tilts the priorities of the Senate—with two seats per state—toward the interests of agriculture and landholders, and away from the unique challenges of city-dwellers.

Statehood would create two US Senate seats for DC, which would be the most urbanized of the 51 states. These new senators would likely gravitate toward policing and other city-dweller concerns. Indeed, representing a majority Black and brown state, these senators would likely help to diversify (in issue focus, if not personnel) a disproportionately white chamber. This representational shift would be good for the interests of urbanites and people of color from Los Angeles, to St. Louis, to Houston.

Aside from being a step toward a legislature that looks more like the nation, DC statehood would remind Americans of something we used to do much more regularly: change the constitutional fabric of our country. Between 1791 to 1959 , the US admitted a state on average every 4.5 years. From 1791 to 1971, Americans passed constitutional amendments once every 6.9 years on average.

In the years since, our politics have become much more static and polarized. As both Democrats and Republicans presume a basic immutability to our government institutions, the stakes of every election spiral upwards.

DC statehood undercuts that dynamic by showing how the shape of the body politic can change. If a 51st state is possible, why not a 52nd? Or a 56th? That’s how many states we would have if all US territories without congressional representation were admitted as full members of the union.

As already noted, the malapportionment of the Senate is bad. It will get even worse in the years to come. Population projections show the comparable ratio for the year 2100 will have that inequality grow to 154 to 1. Admitting DC wouldn’t solve this problem of minority rule: Indeed, it would be the third-smallest state, after Wyoming and Vermont. However, it would create a precedent whereby citizens clustered in blue California or red Texas could vote to splinter into more states, giving their senators more manageable constituency service workloads.

And while DC statehood would not require a change in the Constitution, it would show that big changes are still possible. Some have argued that new amendments to the Constitution would further progress on racial equity, climate change, and income inequality. Rather than advocates having to shoehorn arguments about contemporary problems into 231-year-old legal provisions, new rights with unambiguous texts would make the work of fulfilling the American dream that much easier. We could join the ranks of almost every other country, which on average have overhauled their constitutions every 17 years since 1789. Changing the shape of our democracy opens up new pathways to collectively solving the most daunting problems.

Of course, the latest House action is not the end of the road. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has pledged to take no action. Trump went even further, saying “DC will never be a state . . . No thank you. That’ll never happen.”

These statements are bad for the national interest. At a time when the rest of the world looks in horror at the US’s dysfunctional pandemic response and murderous policing practices, the nation is rapidly losing standing in the world. For a president elected with fewer votes than his competitor to deny representation to its capital city would make matters worse. Still, 2021 could present new opportunities for Washingtonians to help make America truly great.