A vote on granting full statehood for the District of Columbia is expected in the House of Representatives on Thursday. The bill will speak without discussing the alternative options to secure full voting rights for the district. While the House bill is unlikely to pass if the Democrats fail to kill the filibuster, the real loss is that we have been another year without discussing options that could actually be passed and could bring a variety of benefits to the district beyond adding two Senate seats. This is the option that has prevented democratic leadership from seriously considering for decades. I lived in Washington and have had close ties with the city after first coming to Washington as a young congressional site. I have long been in favor of a “modified retrocession plan” and not the creation of a microstate because I firmly believe that a bespoke plan could address longstanding problems for the district in addition to its representative status.
Here is the Hill column:
The entire House of Representatives is due to vote in the coming days to make the District of Columbia a state. The bill is a priority for Democrats and the White House. Senators are calling for the filibuster rule to be abolished so that DC can become a state with just 51 votes after a tie by Vice President Kamala Harris.
There was comparatively little debate about the bill in the House, where superficial hearings knocked it to the ground. What was naturally lacking in the house was recognition, let alone consideration of alternatives to the creation of the country’s first Vatican-like city-state. Above all, there was no discussion about what district citizens could benefit from an alternative to statehood – retrocession.
Despite years of advocacy and overwhelming media support, the country remains deeply divided over DC’s statehood. In January, a Harris / Hill poll found that 52 percent of those polled were in favor of statehood, while 48 percent were against it. In March, the liberal group Democracy for All 2021 Action reported little change with 54 percent support. But after decades of campaigning for the idea, that’s still not a high level of support for a new state
Given this deep division, a series of hearings and public debates could be expected. However, like much in Congress these days, there has been little debate and absolutely no alternatives considered. This is all too familiar to some of us who have dealt with this topic for decades. When a government effort failed due to a lack of public support, the Democrats pushed for DC to have a voice in the House of Representatives. I testified five times in the House and Senate against this earlier bill as being manifestly unconstitutional. At the time, I proposed a “modified retrocession plan” that could have happened decades ago had it not been for the Democratic opposition. Under that plan, the city would retain unique elements in a gradual retrocession back to Maryland. Both Maryland and the district, I believe, could benefit from such a plan.
Retrocession refers to the return of the district to Maryland. Originally, the district was designed as a diamond-shaped “federal city” consisting of land ceded in equal parts by Maryland and Virginia. The authors did not want any state to control the federal city, so its citizens would be represented by all of Congress. After a few years, the district’s Virginians decided they wanted to return and were allowed to resign. The Marylanders decided to remain as a federal city with no direct representation.
I have long argued that the district’s non-electoral status is unacceptable and should change. However, I don’t see statehood as the best option for the country or district. Under my proposal, the mall and federal core buildings would remain in the District of Columbia (as is the case in this legislation), but the rest of the district would return to Maryland, as would the other half of the original district to Virginia. That way, residents would get full representation while taking advantage of various educational and other opportunities in Maryland. This downsizing of the federal enclave was incorporated into the latest statehood proposal without retreating.
Aside from the desire for state status, there are strong political reasons why democratic leaders would not want to hear the “r” word in these debates. The Maryland Democrats are not interested in moving their center of power from Baltimore to Washington. Baltimore (approx. 575,000 inhabitants) is smaller than Washington (approx. 712,000 inhabitants) and would have to deal with political rivals in the deep blue state. Furthermore, the retrocession would not add two new US Senators and a new seat in the House of Representatives for a Democratic majority.
While the retrocession may not benefit the Democratic Party, it would have many benefits for the district citizens. You would instantly become part of a larger state with greater resources and greater success in areas from education to courts to infrastructure.
DC can rightly refer to a population roughly the same as Vermont and larger than Wyoming’s. However, with its 712,000 residents, it would be a city-state with fewer residents than many individual congressional districts. In fact, DC is only the 20th largest US city. While Vermont and Wyoming have smaller populations, DC would only have a fraction of their land mass. The district occupies only 68 square miles as opposed to Wyoming’s 97,800. Little Vermont is more than 140 times larger than DC at over 9,600 square miles. Even the smallest state, Rhode Island, is almost 18 times larger than DC and has 39 cities.
Most states not only have larger land masses, but also more diverse economies. DC remains largely an industrial city. Almost 41 percent of the gross domestic product is tied to the government. If you add professional services like lawyers and lobbyists, that number goes up to 71 percent. Manufacturing makes up less than 1 percent, and most of the other categories make up tiny parts of DC’s economy.
By comparison, Maryland has a very diverse economy, including a booming high-tech industry. It also has billions of dollars in exports, a large international port, and one of the best higher education systems in the world. District residents could become part of a lively economic, educational and industrial state.
While many citizens clearly disagree, I don’t believe there is a need to keep the Capitol out of state control. Existing constitutional doctrines protect federal buildings and enclaves from state interference and control. Therefore, we could return the district’s territory to Maryland and immediately restore DC citizens of Maryland citizenship.
There are strong arguments for statehood and this is a difficult question for many of us. However, both the district and the country deserve a debate over whether to add not just a new state, but the first city-state resembling an American Liechtenstein. This debate should take into account the alternatives and possibilities that retrocession offers.
Jonathan Turley is Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online at JonathanTurley.