Position:Letter to the editor

Thirty-seven times since the nation's founding, we have added states to the union. The last time was in 1959, when two new states, Alaska and Hawaii, were admitted.

There are a couple of reasons to think such a moment may be arriving again. The first is the scandalously poor response to last year's hurricane in Puerto Rico. While Puerto Ricans are American citizens, the island, which for more than a century has been governed as a U.S. territory, has neither congressional representation nor Electoral College votes. As many have observed, this lack of representational clout goes a long way toward explaining why the federal government has felt free to slow-walk the hurricane recovery. Puerto Ricans' lack of political power may have caused thousands of lives to be lost. The second factor pushing in favor of statehood is the Republican Party's ongoing effort to use anti-democratic tactics--from voter ID laws to voter roll purges to racial gerrymanders--to tip the electoral scales to their advantage.

As a result, some on the left are saying that the time has come to right the balance by expanding democracy and granting statehood both to Puerto Rico and to another region that has been denied full representation for even longer, the District of Columbia. We sent out two reporters, Ben Paviour and Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter-Poza, to explore the opportunities and challenges that a push for fifty-two states would present. Here's what they found.




Like so many of their progressive peers, advocates of statehood for the District of Columbia approached the November 2016 election with optimism. Common sense said that Hillary Clinton would win the White House; hope said that Clinton, who had promised to be a "vocal champion for D.C. statehood," could be convinced to deliver the old dream of full congressional representation for the district. Advocates queued up a citywide referendum to register the overwhelming local support for the proposed State of New Columbia. "The whole theory was, we'd be all set to get statehood when the Democrats moved in," says Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed, a nonprofit that has argued for increased autonomy for the district.

What happened next is a familiar story: the gut check of Trump, the months of soul searching, the bleary-eyed march forward. But outside of the movement, few Democrats wasted tears on the cause of D.C. statehood. Though the 2016 party platform explicitly included a policy of "finally passing statehood for the District of Columbia," most lawmakers who are even aware of the issue continue to see it as morally righteous but politically irrelevant. "Few, if any, Democrats would give D.C. statehood a higher priority than policy issues that directly concern the voters in their state," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "This subject is well down the agenda for almost all senators, and I doubt that changes."

It's natural for Democrats to prioritize parochial concerns that matter for their constituencies. But from a long-term, institutional perspective, the Democratic silence on statehood is a tactical oddity. Any future state centered around the current district would be all but certain to elect left-leaning Democrats to its two Senate seats and one House seat. It's a margin that would have doomed the Republican tax reform bill and Neil Gorsuch's Supreme Court career, and one that would help a future Democratic president avoid the gridlock of an opposition-controlled Congress.

The low priority Democrats place on D.C. statehood speaks to their squeamishness about framing the issue as a win for their party. "Even when we go and have closed-door meetings with the staff of members of Congress, people do not talk in those terms," says Keshini Ladduwahetty, chair of the prostate-hood group DC for Democracy, a progressive advocacy group that is one of at least a half-dozen organizations pushing for statehood. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's longtime Democratic, nonvoting House delegate, contends that the partisan implications are best left unspoken. "If that isn't self-evident, nothing is," she says.

A hungrier Democratic Party might decide to ditch the subtlety. "Two decades of framing this as a moral issue and not as a partisan one has not paid any meaningful dividends," says David Faris, a political science professor at Roosevelt University and author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. "So my question would be: Who are we pretending for?"

Faris and others envision a stiffer-spined Democratic Party--one that could see statehood as the partisan gift that it is, and gun the proposal through Congress and a Democratic White House at the next opportunity. There would be significant political risks, and Republicans would resist at every turn. (Ohio governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich warned that statehood would mean "just more votes in the Democratic Party.") The effort would require Democrats to marshal uncharacteristic ruthlessness.

"The failure to prioritize D.C. statehood over the last administration is reflective of an overall problem of the Democratic Party, which is not focusing on how to build and develop power to push more the inclusive populist reforms our country needs," says Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a political action committee started by Howard Dean. "The reality is, if the shoe were on the other foot ... there's not a doubt in my mind Republicans would have jammed statehood through decades ago."

Congress has been cool to the idea of empowering D.C. citizens since 1783, when a group of Continental army soldiers stormed sessions of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to demand overdue pay. Pennsylvania denied aid to the besieged delegates, leading to a consensus that the new republic's capital would need an extra layer of protection from state interference. The resulting constitutional clause gave Congress exclusive legislative control over a capital district "not exceeding ten miles square."

The arrangement inspired animus almost as soon as the district was carved out of Virginia and Maryland in 1790. In the second book in her Washington series, Capital City, 18-79-1950, historian Constance Green describes nineteenth-century senators bellyaching that their chamber was reduced to a "mere town council" when it took up debates over local property taxes. When renegade Republican Senator Henry Blair proposed a constitutional amendment in 1890 that would have given the district congressional representation, his party ignored the proposal. The 1892 Democratic platform advocated that federal territories like D.C. and Alaska maintain "home rule and control of their own affairs," a position that Green describes, in terms likely to resonate with contemporary statehood activists, as "purely decorative until discarded."

D.C. citizens only became able to vote for the president living in their midst with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1961. The Home Rule Act of 1973 finally granted the city its own elected mayor and council, but Congress retained the power to review and reject its budget and legislation. A proposed constitutional amendment that would have granted D.C. full congressional representation cleared both chambers in 1978, but earned ratification...

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