A pet policy initiative of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats she leads since the midterms is a push for statehood for the District of Columbia. You may have been sideswiped by the news over the past few weeks, but if you’re like most people, you’ve not seen much background or analysis. So, as happens from time to time, I, a native-born Washingtonian, again come to your rescue on points of local puzzlement (as I did recently with this).
Let’s get right to the point: Nancy, we know it’s a partisan ploy. We know it would require a Constitutional Amendment to happen, and so it’s highly unlikely to happen.
We also know that every minute of congressional time this effort consumes is time Congress spends not governing. There is a difference, remember, between politics and governing, although given what’s been going on for such a long time now a person could be forgiven for forgetting the distinction.
Not that the Democrats have been entirely missing in action on the governance front: The House did pass HR. 1, which had some positive qualities, and which in turn explains why Mitch McConnell’s first reaction was to butcher it and nail the bloody carcass to his office wall—in other words, to put politics ahead of governance. So the Democrats’ response with the DC statehood stuff is neither unusual nor entirely without justification. Still…
But let’s get right to the second point: The DC statehood idea is nothing new. In August 1978 Congress submitted the District of Columbia Voting Rights Act to the states for ratification—and any change must be a Constitutional Amendment because Article 1, Section 8 lays down specific definitions of what and where the District is. As it happened then, ratification failed before the deadline, and several Democratic-leaning states were among those that did not ratify. In 2014 Maryland’s two Democratic Senators introduced a similar initiative. It went nowhere.
Knowing a bit about the prior history to all this offers some edifying context. When Washington was chosen as the Federal District in 1790—as a compromise between those wanting it in the north, in Philadelphia or New York, and those wanting it in the south, in Richmond or Charleston—there were only about 11,000 people in what was still a rural area, a small population even by late 18th century standards. So no one paid much attention to the question of political representation.
Skipping right on by the British burning of the city—what there was of it—in 1814, the next significant thing that happened for purposes of our inquiry was the retrocession of the part of District on the Virginia side of the Potomac back to the Old Dominion in 1847. The City of Alexandria was part of that retrocession, and the new county was for a short time called Alexandria County. Then the City of Alexandria separated itself and the rest of the area became Arlington County. Arlington County was pretty bare at the time, save for the Custis-Lee Mansion and estate, which, as everyone knows, is now the site of Arlington National Cemetery.
Why the retrocession? The reasons are actually more relevant than you might suppose. One reason was that most Alexandrians didn’t like being disenfranchised. Another was that they were being discriminated against after Congress specified in 1791 that no Federal buildings were to be erected on the Virginia side of the District. And a third was that Alexandria hosted a major slave market, and as the Abolitionist movement took shape most Alexandrians worried that slavery would be declared illegal in the District.
Anti-slavery Virginians opposed retrocession because it would add two pro-slavery congressional seats to the state congressional delegation and to the statehouse, but the majority of Alexandrians favored it. In 1846, they got their way when President Polk signed the legislation granting it. The Virginia House of Delegates ratified it the next year. The Compromise of 1850 soon outlawed the slave trade in the District (but it did not outlaw slavery there), so the Alexandrians had predicted accurately.
Why is this relevant? Because the issue of disenfranchisement is still the democratic essence of the problem. Those “taxation without representation” DC license plates ain’t just whistling Dixie, so to speak (seeing as how license plates can’t actually whistle Dixie). And speaking of Dixie, race and racial politics are still the nub of the politics here, which bears a history within the history.
The best guess is that Washington today is about 48 percent African American, down from about 71 percent at its height in the mid-to-late 1960s. In 1957, Washington became the first American city with a majority African-American population.
What’s the backstory? African Americans made up an unusually large percentage of the population in Washington even before the Civil War, and most—more than 80 percent in 1860—were free blacks, not slaves. The city had become a popular congregating place for free blacks and “fugitives” from slave states in which manumission had become more common during the previous decade: mainly Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Then, on April 16, 1862, eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was made illegal, which attracted even more African Americans to the city.
As the city’s population grew after the Civil War, the percentage of blacks fell, but then rose sharply as the momentum of the Great Migration out of the south increased. Several incentives drew blacks to Washington: It was closer to family left at home than New York, Chicago, or St. Louis; there was already an established black community, organized largely around vibrant churches and businesses; and thanks to it being the seat of the Federal government, the District was formally desegregated. Much de facto segregation existed anyway for the most part due to semi-formal residential segregation, but before 1913 black and white schoolteachers in Washington received equal pay. Dunbar High School became perhaps the premier black high school in the nation.
What happened in 1913? Woodrow Wilson happened. President Wilson ordered the segregation of all Federal buildings in Washington, an order that ramified through city institutions. Washington remained basically segregated until 1954.
During Wilson’s tenure too, in July 1919, a four-day race riot took place in the city. Whites, including uniformed white soldiers and sailors, some recently returned from World War duty, randomly attacked blacks based on a false rumor about a rape arrest. When police refused to intervene, blacks fought back. Fifteen people died and hundreds were wounded before the White House reacted; but before Federal troops did anything, thunderous rainstorms doused the madness.
The NAACP protested to President Wilson, who replied vaguely to a visiting delegation that segregation was good for both races. From time to time I visit Wilson’s tomb in the Washington Cathedral just to make sure that the messianic-addled bastard is still there.
In the 21st century the Great Migration momentum has begun to reverse itself, with many African Americans moving out of the city, some to suburban Maryland and some back to the south for family and economic reasons. Meanwhile, gentrification has brought more whites and others into the city. The year 2011 was the crossing point when the majority of District residents were no longer African American for the first time in about 55 years.
Despite all these coming and goings, all political observers agree that Washington would be solid blue were it to become a state. The numbers say it all: Since the 2000 presidential election, about 85 percent of the District vote has gone Democratic. Folks: 85 percent is a very big number in electoral politics. And that is, to repeat, the obvious principal reason that Democrats want statehood and Republicans don’t. To understand most of what will go down over this issue in this Congress and possibly the next, this is really all you need to know.
As for the argument that District residents are disenfranchised, this is a partial truth. The representation problem has been half a problem since 1961, when the 23rd Amendment was ratified, giving the District representation in the Electoral College. (The only state rejecting the amendment was Arkansas.) Washington has three electoral votes; every one cast since the 1964 election, with a single exception, has been for the Democratic ticket.
In 1971 came the District Delegate Act, which authorized District residents to elect one non-voting representative to Congress. That delegate can do everything every other Congressman can do—speak on the floor, sit on committees, propose legislation—everything but vote. And to round out the picture, the Home Rule Act of 1973 set up a City Council and a Mayor’s office, thus taking over many of the responsibilities formerly vouchsafed entirely in the Congress.
The net result is that Washington residents have full fingers in the Executive Branch and in local self-government, but only part of a thumb at best in the Legislative Branch. That’s been good enough for most, and the status quo is far more positive today than it was in 1888, when the first proposal to create full political rights for District residents was mooted. Until now, at least since the quickly aborted 2014 effort, the issue has not been near the top of either party’s agenda. So why are the Democrats raising it again now if few people who actually live in the District really care? Duh.
If political representation were really the issue here, as opposed to bald partisan politics wearing a bad toupee, an easy and logical solution is at hand: create a congressional district or two and attach them to the State of Maryland. It is true that when asked about such a solution in recent years, neither Maryland nor District residents have favored it. But then no leaders have bothered to make a specific argument for it either.
Note that it would be possible for the District to remain a Federal zone as per the Constitution, so, as with the 1847 retrocession to Virginia, no amendment would be necessary to make the change. Just as the 1961 law enabled District residents to vote for President without jeopardizing the status of the area, so for purposes of congressional representation DC residents could vote in Maryland for that purpose. It needn’t mean that District residents would become full Maryland citizens, or pay taxes to Maryland, or anything else. It would be an adjustment solely to solve the problem of legislative political disenfranchisement.
Should Washington’s electoral college votes also then be transferred to Maryland? Either choice would be fine with me because, either way, the political implication would be neutral: Maryland has a Republican governor right now, but it votes dependably “blue” most of the time. It currently has eight outrageously gerrymandered congressional districts: seven occupied by Democrats and one by a Republican. It has voted blue in every presidential election since 1992. So if the District were added to Maryland for this limited and specific purpose, Maryland would simply become bluer, which would change nothing that matters.
This is a solution everyone can get behind. It would solve the problem of “taxation without representation” for District residents. It would not disadvantage Maryland residents in any way. It is bereft of net partisan implication. It is the right, pragmatic, intelligent thing for Congress and the Administration to do.
So it obviously doesn’t stand a chance.