Should Washington, D.C., become the 51st state?


A bill that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st U.S. state was approved by a Democratic-led House committee last week, setting the stage for a vote by the full chamber in the near future. If it passes, as expected, it will be the first time the campaign to bestow statehood on the nation’s capital has been endorsed by one of the chambers of Congress.

Republicans in the Senate are expected to swiftly reject the bill, however, continuing a legacy of partisan sparring over the District of Columbia that has been going on for more than two centuries.

The fight over where the federal government should be located was one of the defining arguments of the early years of American democracy — with Southern states refusing to accept any plan for it to be in the North and vice versa. In 1790, Congress reached a compromise that established a capital district separate from the states along the Potomac River that would be run by the federal government.

Though Washington, D.C., has gradually increased its ability to govern itself over the years — most crucially winning the right to elect its own mayor and council in 1973 — Congress still has the ability to override local decisions, especially on budgetary matters. The city’s 700,000 residents do not elect senators and are represented by a single delegate in the House of Representatives who is barred from voting on bills.

The effort to increase D.C.’s role in the federal government has been ongoing for decades. The closest it’s come to success was in 1978, when Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given the city full representation in Congress. The amendment was never enacted, however, because not enough states ratified it. In a 2016 referendum, 86 percent of Washington residents voted in favor of the district’s becoming a state.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for statehood say the current system disenfranchises D.C.’s citizens, since they have no power to influence federal decision making that directly affects them. They also argue that lawmakers from far-flung parts of the country are given the ability to override the will of local residents, as they’ve done recently on issues like gun control and abortion. Some historians argue that opposition to D.C. statehood has deeply racist roots informed by a desire to deny power to the city’s predominantly minority population. Similar arguments have been made in favor of adding Puerto Rico to the union. But it’s not entirely clear if Puerto Ricans, unlike D.C. residents, want the island to become a state.

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