Full CItizenship = Statehood
Fugitive slave, abolitionist, civil rights activist, suffragist, writer-publisher, presidential adviser, ambassador and DC resident Frederick Douglass defined "complete citizenship" as "the right to vote and be voted for in the American Republic."
Despite a series of amendments to the Constitution and other laws designed to protect and expand the right to vote to all Americans, there has never been a national right to vote. Nor has there ever been a national right to locally elected government, for that matter. These rights are granted to the states. In other words, they are rights which are achieved through statehood. Americans living in Alaska Territory, Hawaii, New Mexico Territory, Arizona Territory and earlier territories-turned-states (the overwhelming majority of the former territories which make up the 50 states) recognized this. Before statehood, the decisions of federally appointed governors stood unchallenged, however necessary and compassionate or ill-informed and arbitrary. These Americans gained their full citizenship when they gained statehood.
Washington, DC is as large or larger than 4 other states today (Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska and North Dakota), and growing all the time. Current projections show Washington DC's population eclipsing more states in the decades ahead. (Washington, DC was larger than more than a dozen states at the time of the admission of the 48th and 49th states at the beginning of the 1960s.)
Alternatives to Statehood
In the nearly 50 years since DC was granted limited Home Rule in 1973, establishing an elected District Council and Mayor after a century of appointed officials -- but maintaining Congressional oversight and veto power over local laws -- a variety of reforms have been proposed. Along with Statehood, these have included:
- a Constitutional amendment to grant the District two voting senators and one voting representative in the 1970s and 1980s;
- Congressional legislation to grant DC a single representative to the House of Representatives in the 1990s and 2000s;
- Congressional legislation authorizing retrocession, or return, of the residential and commercial areas of the District of Columbia to Maryland (proposed at various times up to the present day).
While retrocession, like Statehood, would give DC residents the rights that people in the 50 states enjoy, this measure requires approval by the governments of both Maryland and the District of Columbia. The majority of District and Maryland residents oppose retrocession for a variety of reasons. Retrocession is frequently discussed as a remedy in Congress, but is not recommended by any elected officials from Maryland.
A Constitutional amendment granting the District two Senators and a Representative (while maintaining Congressional oversight) was passed by Congress in 1978. The proposal failed after only 16 states voted to ratify the amendment within the 7-year time limit (three-fourths of the state legislatures -- 38 states -- having been required by 1985).
Congressional legislation to give the District a single vote in the House of Representatives, introduced repeatedly during the 1990s and 2000s, may or may not be constitutional (there has been a good deal of debate about this). Such legislation would, of course, provide no representation in the Senate (where votes over key federal appointments are held), or any greater measure of independence for the District's local government.
As long as the District's borders remain as they are today, the Constitution's District Clause will continue to subject the residents of Washington, DC to Congressional interference, as highlighted in debates over stalled DC budget autonomy legislation (2010-present); a failed attempt to block the District from decriminalizing marijuana (2012-14); a budget rider intended to overturn a ballot initiative approving the legalization of marijuana (failed) and prohibiting the DC government from taking actions to regulate marijuana (succeeded) (2014); an amendment to DC's FY 2015 budget prohibiting enforcement of any local gun control laws; a House resolution blocking a DC law on reproductive choice non-discrimination (2015); a House FY17 DC appropriations bill including each of the amendments previously mentioned regarding budget autonomy, marijuana, abortion, as well as a reproductive choice non-discrimination law (2016); and a federal, multi-day mobilization of federal troops and law enforcement from across the country throughout downtown Washington, DC, along with a military vehicles and aircraft following an attack by the federal US Park Police on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020. Absent statehood, Congress reserves the right to overrule any local law or local authority.
Statehood is the Answer
Unlike other proposed reforms, an Admission Act, passed by a majority in each house of Congress, then signed by the President, is not vulnerable to repeal. The admission of the 51st State, granting DC residents the same rights that Americans in the 50 states enjoy, cannot be repealed by a future Congress.
Statehood is the only remedy which has been approved by District voters. 86% of DC voters voted for statehood in a referendum in November, 2016 (following earlier referenda in the 1970s and 1980s).
More than 200 years ago, President James Monroe observed in his second annual message to Congress (1818):
As [Congress' exclusive power over the District] is a departure, for a special purpose, from the general principles of our system, it might merit consideration whether an arrangement better adapted to the principles of our government and to the particular interests of the people may not be devised which would neither infringe the Constitution nor affect the object which the provision in question was meant to secure.
That "better arrangement" is statehood. By separating the residential and commercial territory of the District of Columbia from the territory of the federal government, we can preserve an independent jurisdiction for the federal government as defined in the Constitution while finally providing full citizenship to the people of the District of Columbia through a simple vote in Congress, following the same process used to admit 37 other territories into the union.
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