Why Conservatives, Libertarians, and Centrists Should Support D.C. Statehood
On April 14, a U.S. House committee will hold its first vote in 2021 on making Washington, D.C. the 51st U.S. state.
This comes less than a year after the House voted to grant D.C. statehood in June of last year, by a margin of 232 votes for and 180 against. It was, the New York Times reported, “the first time a chamber of Congress has approved establishing the nation’s capital as a state.”
Look at the vote breakdown, though, and you’ll see the challenges ahead for statehood advocates:
All but one Democrat voted for D.C. statehood (and the one was moderate Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), who lost his re-election attempt). All 178 Republicans who voted opposed statehood. The one independent in Congress, former Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a libertarian who used to be in the Republican Party, also opposed statehood.
If the U.S. House, operating on tighter 219–211 Democrat/Republican breakdown in 2021, grants D.C. statehood again soon, the legislation is still likely to meet the same fate it did last year: failure in the U.S. Senate. Despite narrow Democratic control of the Senate at the moment, Senate rules (especially the filibuster) effectively make the bar for D.C. statehood 60 votes rather than 50 (plus a Vice President Harris tiebreaker).
Even if Senate Democrats enact the so-called “nuclear option” and end the filibuster, lowering the threshold for passage of legislation to, effectively, 50 votes plus the Harris tiebreaker, D.C. statehood may still face challenges. According to TIME’s Philip Elliott four Democratic Senators “have all signaled reticence toward such a move.” The recent failure of a Democratic move to increase the $15 minimum wage under 50-vote rules in the Senate demonstrates that eliminating the filibuster, regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, doesn’t automatically clear the way for certain policy preferences.
I have lived in D.C. for most of the last 11 years — longer than some young professionals in a transient city, shorter than many more longtime residents. I have also lived a different (and more privileged) existence than most folks here: four years at one of the school’s private universities (GW) and seven years with an abundance of great professional opportunities in politics and policy.
In that time, though, I have worked with lots of conservatives, libertarians, and centrists, who ultimately may determine if D.C. statehood is a bipartisan issue and makes it through Congress and to a president’s desk, and I’ve come to a simple, strong conclusion: conservatives, libertarians, and centrists have every reason to support making Washington, D.C. the nation’s 51st state.
No Taxation Without Representation
Conservatives, libertarians, and centrists have long cast a skeptical eye toward the federal government’s extraordinary taxing power. A few shared principles in this broader cohort may be to use taxation sparingly, to mind the impact of new and increased taxes on middle-class and low-income households as well as small businesses, and to ensure that individuals subject to taxation have a right to petition their representatives in government and affect policy.
The latter principle is particularly important, and is woven into the fabric of our nation’s history: the British Parliament’s Stamp Act of 1765, levied on American colonies, led to significant protests of British “taxation without representation,” a call for boycotts of British imports and, if we’re to apply a bit of snowball effect, eventually, the Revolutionary War.
In 2017, D.C. residents paid around $37,000 per person, on average, in federal income, payroll, and estate taxes — more than double the next highest state, Delaware. A middle-class household in D.C. — say, a family of four with two income-earners making a combined $75,000 per year — could pay, after taking the standard deduction (with no additional credits) about $56,000 in federal taxes every 10 years. What does it get them? It may get them good results in Congress and it may not, but either way they have no way to directly affect what Congress does with their tax dollars. (Note: the above example assumes static income, static tax brackets, and static standard deductions, which is of course not literal but is meant to be illustrative of a middle-class household’s federal tax burden.)
In what other jurisdiction would this be acceptable? Yes, D.C. would be the smallest state in terms of geographic size. But it would not be the least populous state, due to D.C.’s population density: as is oft cited by statehood advocates, Vermont and Wyoming have smaller populations than D.C. The point is not to pick on those two states, whose residents deserve federal representation in Congress and statehood status just as much as D.C. residents do. But if any number of conservatives, libertarians, or centrists couldn’t imagine Wyoming residents not having representation in Congress, they should also blanch at continuing to give D.C. residents short shrift.
Federalism > Top-Down Federal Mandates
Another common through line from many conservatives and libertarians, and some centrists, is a belief that a significant amount of government power and control should be delegated to smaller units of government — states and municipalities — than the sprawling federal government. Some stricter constitutionalists argue fiercely for the 10th Amendment; namely, that “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Anyone in this cohort should support D.C. statehood on federalism grounds. Unfortunately, D.C. residents and decision-makers in the D.C. Council have been subject to undue interference from Congress in recent years. Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) regularly meddled in D.C.’s affairs from his perch in Congress, on everything from drug policy to immigration policy, despite representing Utah’s Third Congressional District 2,000 miles away.
More recently, a lack of D.C. statehood has given its representatives and residents less of a say over extensive barbed-wire fencing in Capitol Hill residents’ backyards, security for residents during the deadly Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, and even COVID-19 vaccine rollout and distribution.
Conservatives and libertarians who are worried about the excesses and failures of a large, growing federal government should be doubly concerned that around 700,000 people must give Congress effective veto power over everything it does, regardless of what’s stated in the 10th Amendment.
Partisan Considerations are Parochial
An argument I hear most often from my Republican friends, both privately and in public fora, is that D.C. statehood would just give Majority Leader Chuck Schumer two more Democratic U.S. senators. That’s true — D.C. voted for President Biden, for example, by a 93–5 margin — but it still not a reason to deny 700,000 D.C. residents long-overdue representation in Congress.
Interestingly enough, in all six of the most recent years Republicans held control of the upper chamber, two Democratic Senators from D.C. would not have impacted Republicans’ majority. Assuming the addition of two Democrats, here’s how party control would have broken down from 2015–2020:
- 2015: 54 Republicans, 48 Democrats
- 2016: 54 Republicans, 48 Democrats
- 2017: 52 Republicans, 50 Democrats
- 2018: 51 Republicans, 51 Democrats (following the election of Doug Jones in Dec. 2017; Vice President Mike Pence would have broken ties in the Senate)
- 2019: 53 Republicans, 49 Democrats
- 2020: 53 Republicans, 49 Democrats
Yes, two Democratic Senators from D.C. in 2021 and 2022 would mean a 52–50 margin for Democrats, rather than 50–50 with a Harris tiebreaker, but as noted above Democrats still need to iron out significant differences between moderates and progressives in their party on any number of policy matters, and 52–50 vs. 51–50 doesn’t significantly change the dynamic. (If anything, it makes Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) less powerful, and shifts attention to a combination of Manchin and about a dozen other center-left Democrats.)
Going back even further in time, two Democratic D.C. Senators would not have affected Republican majorities from 2005–2006, or 2003–2004 (since Vice President Cheney could break a tie in a 51–51 Senate). You have to go back 20 years, to 2001–2002, for two Democratic Senators from D.C. to make a difference in control of the U.S. Senate.
I show the above statistics in part to demonstrate that giving D.C. proper representation in Congress will not lead to a permanent, sweeping, extremely progressive takeover of the nation. I’m not sure if some Congressional Democrats are primarily motivated to support D.C. statehood by the prospect of two additional U.S. Senators, and I’m not sure if some Congressional Republicans are primarily motivated to oppose D.C. statehood by the same prospect.
What I do know is these concerns are narrow and parochial. The tug and pull between national Republicans and national Democrats over control of a tightly-divided U.S. Senate should not trump the representation needs of 700,000 U.S. citizens, anymore than admitting Alaska and Hawaii to the union in the 1950s was a concern in a tightly divided, 49–47 Senate from 1957–1958. (Democrats gained three U.S. senators and Republicans one from the two new states, but not where you might think — the one Republican was Sen. Hiram Fong of Hawaii, who would go on to serve 18 years. Besides, beyond their net +2 seats from the two new states, Democrats gained 16 other seats in the 1958 elections on the way to a durable 65–35 majority. I’m no political scientist but I don’t think we can contribute the net +18 seats to Alaska and Hawaii statehood.)
The point is, we may know what the battle for control of the U.S. Senate will look like in 2022, or even 2024, but predicting the future beyond that is tough. Even in the near-term, if President Biden proves unpopular and the midterms swing Republicans’ way, Republicans may very well net four seats in the 2022 midterms, which would give them a 54–46 majority — or 54–48, if you added two U.S. senators from D.C.
Beyond the next four years, though, predicting the political picture gets murky. Conservatives and libertarians should be more concerned with the representation and federalism concerns mentioned above than the temporary shifts in political dynamics on Capitol Hill — which would, indeed, be temporary.
What About Retrocession?
A frequent argument I’ve heard from conservative friends is that, as a compromise, D.C. should be absorbed by Maryland so that the 700,000 residents of the District are represented in the Senate by Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney does a simpler and more effective job rebutting this than I could:
District residents don’t want to rejoin Maryland. They voted by 86 percent in a referendum endorsing statehood.
Maryland isn’t supportive either. A Washington Post poll in 2019 found Marylanders opposed making the District one of their counties by 57 percent to 36 percent.
Simply put, such a move strongly goes against the will of the people affected by the move. It may solve the “no taxation without representation” concern, and conservative worries about a closely divided Senate, but it doesn’t solve the federalism concerns about D.C.’s control over local affairs.
P.S. McCartney also does a good job rebutting some other common arguments against statehood, and I recommend you read his full column.
Like Limited Government? Support D.C. Statehood
I hope the above arguments are somewhat convincing to my conservative, libertarian, and centrist friends — or, if I don’t know you and you find yourself skeptical of statehood and reading this, I hope this convinces you, too.
I believe that all of the above arguments are persuasive reasons to support D.C. residents both a) having a say in their national government, and b) having greater control over their local affairs, depending on where you fall on the political and ideological spectra.
I also think D.C. statehood is simply the right thing to do. Nearly three-quarters of a million people— a disproportionate amount of them non-white citizens — in the heart of the nation’s mid-Atlantic, who contribute to both the local economy and the national economy, lack effective representation in Congress and effective control over city matters. It’s time that changed. I hope it does soon, and, as a secondary matter, I hope there’s bipartisan support when it does.