Congress Should Vote to Make the District of Columbia a State

Residents of the District of Columbia pay federal taxes like residents from every other U.S.state. The residents of the District, however, do not have voting representation in Congress. Congress should use its authority under Article 4 of the Constitution to admit the District as a new state.  

The Constitution grants Congress the power to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District,” (referring to what became the District of Columbia). This authority gives Congress the power to change the laws of the District or prevent the city council from freely allocating tax money paid by its resident to the District of Columbia government. In last fall’s debt negotiations in Congress, the District lost the right to use its local tax dollars for family planning for District residents. This is very clearly taxation without representation.

Though the District has a larger population than a state like Wyoming, the latter has one congressman in the House and two Senators. The District, however, is represented by one non-voting delegate, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton. But even this inadequacy is recent. The District was not represented in Congress, even at the delegate level, until 1971. Even so, the District’s non-voting delegate does not exert the same type of influence that congressmen or senators enjoy. Norton can only vote on procedural matters in the House. Therefore, there is no reason for other members of Congress to court her vote.  

The issue of representation, however, is not simply voting rights for the District’s delegate. Voting rights should not be confused with statehood. In 2009 and 2010, Congress came close to giving residents of the District a vote in Congress. The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 would have given the District a vote in the House of Representatives. It passed the Senate, but with an amendment by Senator John Ensign that would have prevented the District from making and enforcing gun control laws. This effectively killed the act. Even if the act had been signed into law, the District deserves full representation in both the House and the Senate. The only way the District can be fully represented is if it becomes a state.  

Residents of the District enjoy fewer rights than Americans who live outside of the United States. Americans who live abroad, who are residents of a state, may cast votes for Congress.  Resident of the District may only cast a vote for a non-voting delegate. This causes many people who move to the District to maintain their residency in another state so that they can be represented by a voting member of Congress.

The District also stands in contrast to territories like Guam and Puerto Rico. The territories also have non-voting delegates in Congress. But they are not the same. The District is entitled to three votes in the Electoral College. The residents of the territories, however, cannot vote for president. Residents of the territories do not pay federal taxes. Like residents of the states, the residents of the District pay both federal and local taxes. The local taxes that residents of the District pay, however, are subject to congressional oversight and approval.  States do not have this issue.  

The District’s status as a non-state has even caused the Supreme Court to jump through hoops. For example, when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, it held that discrimination in public education was illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of Equal Protection. But the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to the states. The school desegregation case involving the District was before the Supreme Court at the same time Brown was before the Court. The case, Bolling v. Sharpe, was decided under the Fifth Amendment. But the Fifth Amendment does not have an Equal Protection Clause. Instead, the Court held that the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause had been violated. If the District had been a state, a separate opinion for Bolling would have been unnecessary.  

Only statehood will give the District’s residents true representation in Congress. The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act would not have given the District representation in the Senate, nor would it have given residents true self-rule. It would not have removed Congress’s authority to veto the District’s budgets or impose laws that its residents oppose. To give residents of the District real representation, Congress must grant it statehood.  

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Zaid A. Zaid

Zaid A. Zaid is lawyer in Washington, DC. Zaid was formerly a political officer in the Foreign Service, serving in Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia, as well as the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. He is a member of the American Constitution Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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