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DC Will Never Become a State. But Here’s How It Could Come Close.

DC once sought to leap to statehood. Inching closer may be the better option.
Photograph by Daniren/Alamy

Since spring, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the DC Council have been beating a drum for the city’s latest run at statehood. In April, the council voted to stage a referendum on the issue. After that, Bowser convened a series of meetings billed as “constitutional conventions” to draw up a charter for the potential state.

It’s not exactly a new crusade. Citizens have been arguing for statehood, or at least congressional representation, nearly since the District’s creation in 1801; the modern attempt took root during the civil-rights era. But past efforts haven’t always involved the level of detail—say, the recent argument about whether the governor of “New Columbia” would have a line-item veto—that is part of this year’s conversation.

Activists believe that getting into the weeds is crucial. Says Walter Smith of DC Appleseed, a public-policy advocacy group: “We might have a Democratic Senate, and if there’s a landslide, there will be a Democratic House, and we needed to move and say we’re ready for statehood.”

In a push whose history involves refrains about justice, the sudden passion for political nitty-gritty represents a turn. But in fact, it arises from a strategy DC has been using for the past decade as it has sought incremental steps toward something that looks and acts more like a state.

Take the recent creation of an elected attorney-general position. On the surface, electing the city’s lawyer doesn’t seem like a big deal. But the longer-term goal is to undo a particularly galling aspect of the 1973 Home Rule law: Unlike other Americans, DC residents’ right to govern themselves doesn’t extend to prosecuting criminals. (Just imagine if President Obama got to appoint the district attorneys in a states’-rights hotbed like Texas.) By creating the AG position, the District initiated an infrastructure that could take over the job easily.

The same idea applies to DC’s efforts to get around another much-maligned aspect of the status quo: the law that requires the city to submit its budget to Congress, which would then pass it as part of the overall federal budget. In 2013, District voters approved a “budget autonomy” referendum. The measure wasn’t exactly a sweeping assertion of independence—Capitol Hill has 30 days to review city laws, including spending plans—but it did mean that garbage removal wouldn’t be caught up in congressional budget stalemates. Court challenges delayed the referendum’s effect until this summer, but now DC lawmakers will have a bit more room to engage—for better or worse—in the most basic aspect of running a government.

The matter of congressional voting rights has long been the statehood movement’s silver medal—and its biggest subject of contention—with congressional Democrats angling to give the city’s delegate in the House a vote and Republicans working to stymie them. Smith, though, thinks it can be done without Congress’s say-so: “It’s a little-known fact that the DC Council has the power to amend any enactment directed exclusively to the District. There is an enactment that created a nonvoting delegate, so [let’s] amend it to make it a voting delegate.”

The council is drafting such a bill, though it would almost certainly be challenged in court.

Some statehood claims have less to do with democracy than with logistics. Take prisons: DC doesn’t have its own penal system—District convicts serve time as far away as Florida, creating a burden on families back here. But running your own penal system is expensive for any state, particularly one so densely populated that it might have to rent land for its prison in a nearby jurisdiction. If statehood somehow happened, this mundane aspect of budget-making would move front and center, just as in the 50 other states.

Or consider universities. Absent an unlikely multibillion-dollar transformation of the University of the District of Columbia, it’s probable that residents of a new state would lack one of the institutions that citizens of other states assume to be part of society’s fabric: a full-fledged public research university that comes with things like a medical school. Currently, DC residents have a federal grant program that lowers the cost of attending state schools elsewhere, but under statehood that could vanish.

None of this is to say statehood isn’t fair or moral or even wise. It’s just that America’s federal system has some absurdities, and among them is the expectation that a small-population state should have to create its own research university or prison complex. Why not pool with others? In fact, some states already do that: Wyoming—one of two states with a smaller population than DC’s—teams up with a number of western states to share medical education.

So here’s an idea DC could try right now: What if it could “buy” its way into, say, Maryland’s system—kicking in a portion of funding relative to its population, accessing the benefits, and even letting Maryland take UDC as an outpost in the nation’s capital? That would require feats of legislative and bureaucratic jujitsu, but it would give District families access to yet another normal, workaday thing that states enjoy.

This article appears in our September 2016 issue of Washingtonian. 

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.