There's no single issue that's more important to the District-Federal relationship than how we are to organize ourselves as full members of the American experiment in democracy.
Now, I fully believe DC should be a state, with the full privileges and responsibilities as every other state. However, we have to do more, and I have to do more, than just call for Statehood. I think it's important for me personally to lay out the reasoning WHY I support this. For the next five days, I'll explain some of my thoughts about this, how we got here, and where I'd like to take us.
Being, at root, a bit of a historian, I'll begin with laying down the historical underpinnings of our current status as I see it.
Any discussion of DC Statehood comes inevitably back to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. Try to explain the patently unjust status of 640,000 Americans without represenatation and you get Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 thrown back at you. For those who don’t have their pocket Constitution on them, said clause states that Congress shall have the power,
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;
We can complain all we like, but even a plain text reading shows that Congress exercises “exclusive jurisdiction” over the District. No way out of that.
But let’s examine the clause a bit more closely. Note that the Constitution doesn’t say much here about the residents of this new District nor how they are to be governed-- likely because the writers envisioned few, if any, permanent residents.
As we all know, the Constitution was signed in the city of Philadelphia, which a few years later would just slip behind New York as the second largest city at the time, with around 27,000 residents in the 1790 census. New York topped out at 33,000. The District didn’t even exist then, but when it did, ten years later, we had less than 2000 residents. The idea that 640,000 people would be living in the ten-mile (now less) square jurisdiction would have been as incomprehensible as airplanes or the internet in 1790.
The Constitution, and more importantly, the men who wrote it, didn’t really plan on Congress worrying about our street signs and trash collection. Congress was never meant to be in the business of local governance, even back then. In one of the few commentaries on the subject, James Madison in Federalist No. 43 somewhat optimistically assumes “a municipal Legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed them." It wouldn't be “of course” at all. We were not allowed that “municipal legislature” until the Home Rule Act of 1973, and even then on a limited basis.
Beyond that throwaway line, the drafters weren’t overly worried about hypothetical future residents. They were were worried about existing residents of major cities like Philadelphia or New York using the home field advantage to capitalize on their existing wealth and population to influence the new, vulnerable government. Locating the capital in either city would give too much influence to already powerful states.
And it wasn’t just the concern about abstract "influence"; the Founders were concerned about the physical security of the capital as well.
It’s almost forgotten now, but the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 profoundly influenced the drafting of the Constitution. In the summer of that year, several hundred soldiers of the Continental Army marched on the Pennsylvania State House (today’s Independence Hall) where Congress was meeting, demanding, quite reasonably, to be paid. Congress appealed to Pennsylvania officials to have the state militia disperse the soldiers. Pennsylvania was uninterested in helping Congress, and so Congress fled to New Jersey. The experience left quite an impression on early legislators, and they wished to avoid a repeat of the murky question of who controlled the territory around the Capitol building. Hence the need to make certain the new capital was outside the legal jurisdiction of any state militia, and that the new federal government was legally empowered to build and maintain defenses for the new jurisdiction outside the state militia system.
Today, it’s safe to say, this is an archaic concern. Is there really a rational fear that if the District Clause were magically repealed tomorrow, the newly founded State of New Columbia (or whatever) would challenge the power of the federal government? The Civil War fairly decisively ended the idea that states could militarily threaten the national government. Like all National Guards, the DC National Guard is well integrated into the US military. Today they are true citizen-soldiers, not a potential alternative power base.
Likewise, the Federal government is now well established and, some might say, entrenched. It’s not a handful of men hanging out in taverns and boarding houses, haggling over the Rights of Man. Could two Senators from DC influence the Federal government? Absolutely. Just like the two from Maryland, the two from Virginia, and the two from any other state can and do. Yet, they would be but two voices in over a hundred, without any disproportionate ability or status to exercise unusual influence.
Unlike the gentlemen in Philadelphia, we have inherited a stable republic in little danger of armed revolt. We are a prosperous country, yet with 21st century problems to deal with. We can choose not to be beholden to 18th century ones.
More on that tomorrow….