A vote is expected on Thursday in the House for granting the District of Columbia full statehood. The bill will reach the floor without a discussion of the alternative options to securing full voting rights for the district. While the House bill is unlikely to pass unless the Democrats can succeed in killing the filibuster, the real loss is that we have gone another year without discussing options that could actually pass and bring a myriad of benefits to the district beyond just adding two Senate seats. That is the option that the Democratic leadership has spent decades blocking from serious consideration. I lived in Washington and have close ties to the city after first coming to Washington as a young congressional page. I have long advocated a “modified retrocession” plan rather than the creation of a micro state because I truly believe that a tailored plan could address long-standing problems for the district in addition to its representational status.
Here is the Hill column:
The full House of Representatives is set for a 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 killing of the filibuster rule to allow D.C. to become a state with just 51 votes after a tie breaker by Vice President Kamala Harris.
There has been comparatively little debate of the bill in the House, where perfunctory hearings rushed it to the floor. What was missing by design in the House was any acknowledgment, let alone consideration, of alternatives to creating the first Vatican-like city-state in the country. Most importantly, there was no discussion of what district citizens could gain from an alternative to statehood — retrocession.
The country remains sharply divided over D.C. statehood despite years of advocacy and overwhelming media support. In January, a Harris/Hill poll showed 52 percent of respondents favoring statehood while 48 percent opposed it. In March, the liberal group Democracy for All 2021 Action reported little change in that, with 54 percent support. But that still is not a high degree of support for a new state after decades of campaigning for the idea
Given such deep division, one might expect there to be a series of hearings and public debates. Yet, like much else in Congress these days, there was little debate and absolutely no alternatives were considered. That is all too familiar to some of us who have been involved with this issue for decades. When a statehood effort failed due to lack of public support, Democrats pushed to give D.C. a vote in the House of Representatives. I testified five times in the House and Senate against that earlier bill as flagrantly unconstitutional. At the time, I proposed a “modified retrocession plan” that could have occurred decades ago if not for Democrats’ opposition. Under this plan, the city would maintain unique elements in a phased retrocession back to Maryland. Both Maryland and the District could benefit from such a plan in my view.
Retrocession refers to returning the district from whence it came: to Maryland. Originally, the district was designed to be a diamond-shaped “federal city” composed of land ceded equally from Maryland and Virginia. The Framers did not want any state to control the federal city and, thus, its citizens would be represented by the Congress as a whole. After a few years, the district’s Virginians decided they wanted to go back and were allowed to retrocede. The Marylanders decided to remain as a federal city without direct representation.
I have long maintained that the district’s non-voting status is unacceptable and should change. However, I do not view statehood as the best option, for the country or for the district. Under my proposal, the Mall and core federal buildings would remain the District of Columbia (as is the case in this legislation) but the remainder of the district would retrocede back to Maryland, as did the original district’s other half to Virginia. In this way, residents would receive full representation while receiving the benefits of various Maryland educational and other opportunities. That reduction of the federal enclave has been incorporated in the latest statehood proposal without retrocession.
Beyond the desire for state status, there are strong political reasons why Democratic leaders do not want to hear “the ‘r’ word” in these debates. Maryland Democrats are not keen on having their center of power shift from Baltimore to Washington. Baltimore (population around 575,000) is smaller than Washington (population around 712,000) and would have to contend with political rivals in the deeply blue state. Moreover, retrocession would not add two new U.S. senators and a new House seat for a Democratic majority.
While retrocession might not benefit the Democratic Party, there would be many benefits for district citizens. They would instantly become part of a larger state with greater resources and greater success in areas ranging from education to courts to infrastructure.
D.C. can legitimately point to a population roughly equal to Vermont’s and greater than Wyoming’s. However, with its 712,000 citizens, it would be a city-state with fewer residents than many single congressional districts. Indeed, D.C. is only the 20th largest U.S. city. While Vermont and Wyoming have smaller populations, D.C. would have only a fraction of their land masses. The district occupies just 68 square miles, in contrast to Wyoming’s 97,800. Tiny Vermont, at more than 9,600 square miles, is more than140 times larger than D.C. Even the smallest state, Rhode Island, is almost 18 times larger than D.C. and has 39 cities and towns.
Most states not only have larger land masses but more diverse economies. D.C. remains largely a one industry town. Almost 41 percent of its gross domestic product is tied to the government. When you add professional services, like lawyers and lobbyists, that figure goes up to 71 percent. Manufacturing is less than 1 percent, and most other categories comprise tiny parts of D.C.’s economy.
In comparison, Maryland has a highly diverse economy, including a booming high-tech industry. It also has billions of dollars in exports, a major international port and one of the best higher education systems in the world. District residents could become part of a vibrant economic, educational and industrial state.
While many citizens clearly disagree, I do not believe it is necessary to keep the Capitol outside the control of any state. Existing constitutional doctrines protect federal buildings and enclaves from state interference and control. That is why we could return the district’s territory to Maryland and instantly give back D.C. citizens their representational rights as Marylanders.
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 on whether to add not just a new state but the first city-state resembling an American Liechtenstein. That debate should consider the alternatives and opportunities offered by retrocession.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.