America’s Micro State: Why Congress Should Consider Retrocession Rather Than Statehood

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.

40 thoughts on “America’s Micro State: Why Congress Should Consider Retrocession Rather Than Statehood”

  1. “. . . when the Founders was alive. I doubt they ever anticipated that there would be over 700,000 people living there.”

    Because they never anticipated that the government would become a Leviathan.

  2. What an ignorant column. Turley is absolutely silent about the fact that retrocession cannot occur without approval from Maryland, and Maryland residents don’t want DC to be retroceded, and DC residents don’t either.

    “Maryland Democrats are not keen on having their center of power shift from Baltimore to Washington.”

    Maryland Republicans and independents are not keen on having their center of power shift from Baltimore to Washington either.

    “we could return the district’s territory to Maryland and instantly give back D.C. citizens their representational rights as Marylanders.”

    No, “we” cannot. Only Maryland can accept retrocession. It is impossible for the land to be “returned” without their acceptance, no matter what Congress approves.

    1. You miss his point. I have no doubt that you are correct about the Republicans and Independents not wanting it either. Yet, the Republicans and Independents are not pushing for statehood for D.C., the Democrats are doing so for the two Senate seats and one House seat. They do not even bother to try and cover their ambitions.

      There is historical precedent and what would be best for those living in D.C. as residents. Becoming a state is not a cheap proposition and taxes would be hard to raise. Taxes would have to go up for residents just so the Democrats could have the Senate seats. To try and go it alone would not be an easy proposition.

      Professor Turley does point out there are clearly issues that would have to be addressed for Maryland including a new power hub to deal with for Baltimore.

      Personally I am against D.C. for statehood. I think it is both badly conceived as an idea and a naked power grab without consideration of other alternatives. D.C. from the start was to be separated from the states, not part of a state nor a state. Our founding fathers could have made it a state from the start and chose not.

  3. The communists (liberals, progressives, socialists, democrats, RINOs) have been subverting the American thesis, treasonously nullifying the Constitution and cheating since 1860.

    “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

    – Declaration of Independence, 1776

  4. Unconstitutional under Article I, Section 8; Article IV, Section 3; and the 23rd Amendment. But Democrats do not care since they view the U.S. Constitution as an annoyance (“No amendment to the Constitution is absolute”).

  5. One issue overlooked is the rights of Marylanders. Virginia got its land back, but Maryland didn’t. As a consequence, MD is a very small, oddly shaped state. Look at a map and compare that to VA! I would think that MD citizens could sue if their land was used to create another state for political purposes, rather than being returned to them. It is worth noting, and a further argument for retrocession, that under DC law, any matters not covered by DC law are deferred to MD law, so the separation between MD and DC was never fully complete.

    1. Maryland legally ceded its right to the land when DC was originally formed.

      MD would be “a very small, oddly shaped state” even if the land were returned. West Virginia has just as strange a shape and isn’t much bigger, and other states like RI and CT are smaller. The panhandle of Oklahoma is strange. The fact that Michigan is split into 2 non-contiguous parts is strange. Maryland’s shape is irrelevant.

  6. While I am in full agreement that the land north of the Potomac should revert back to Maryland, there is another, more fair, option. That is to completely dismantle the United States capitol, which is made us mostly of decaying buildings some 200 years old in some cases, and establish a new capitol in the middle of the country. After all, when Washington was established, it was in the middle of the country as it existed at the time. The geographical center of the nation today would be somewhere in Kansas or perhaps Oklahoma. However, I am afraid the issue is moot because I don’t expect the United States to survive as a nation much longer. As it is, we have the East and West Coasts running a nation of states that are neither.

  7. Being DC operates largely on Federal jobs (the nation’s taxes) move all Federal offices throughout the United States. This would bring Federal jobs to many flyover states and eliminate the need of creating a non needed state. The federal government has proven they can operate on video conferencing. All lobbyists and law firms would move as well to all these states, again offering jobs. Demolish all the buildings, create a beautiful park which would make all environmental activists happy.

    1. All lobbyists and law firms would move as well to all these states, again offering jobs.

      Repealing the 17th amendment would accomplish that and begin to restore 10th amendment rights back to the states.

    2. Margot, that is a suggestion that should be considered since DC is too far away from many of the things DC is now responsible for. The people need to live close to the ‘problems’ and learn from people that live there.

      While doing that we could reduce the size of government ridding ourselves of problems that belong to the state, not the federal government. Add retrocession to the mix and this country will be better for it.

      Democrats don’t think out of the box, nor is their concern citizens of the US. Their only true desire is to grab power.

      1. Democrats don’t think out of the box,

        Here’s the problem. There is a box, but it’s not Democrats that are stuck in it. That box is more like a frame. It reminds me of Lincoln’s Fragment on the Constitution and the Union, when he said:

        The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.

        The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.

        Everyone that loves this country, with our founding documents, western norms and traditions, rule of law and natural rights are stuck thinking (defending) from inside this frame. Democrats and more accurately the Leftists (Marxists) began their attack from the outside. The Leftists didn’t have to defend anything. They merely had to pound away at the frame (Constitution) until they broke it. Lincoln concluded that fragment by saying: So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken. That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.

        We didn’t heed that warning. Once inside, they began a steady onslaught of our cultural norms and institutions. They’ve been a cancer on this nation and we are in Stage 4. It’s time to think outside the box on how to rid ourselves of this cancer.

        1. Olly, perhaps we have to rethink what it means to be polite in a world where one can lose his livelihood, be cancelled and everything else. It is time to call people out and make them uncomfortable.

          The polite method hasn’t worked and our leaders are more intimidated by the left that doesn’t vote for them than they are intimidated by the right that does.

          When considering which is more important, it might be important to be loved but in critical circumstances like we face it is more important to be feared.

          1. I agree completely. This is political warfare and the Left has game planned a constitutional response that they don’t deserve. The maxim that the constitution is not a suicide pact will be proven false, if we reliably bring a constitutional knife to the Left’s Marxist gunfight.

  8. Wait for it. Retrocession is such an anti-progressive term. Wait for it. It harkens back to a horrible time in American history and Maryland’s slavery roots. Wait for it. Forcing residents in D.C. to become Maryland citizens, forces them to accept Maryland’s racist history and that’s unacceptable. Wait for it. They deserve to be recognized as a stand alone state with an unblemished history that progresses forward from it’s new beginnings. Or something like that.

  9. DC doesn’t need a House member or two Senators. DC residents talk to members of Congress daily at bars and tell em what’s needed.

  10. The test shall be how the debate if any…and the vote goes. As our good friend from Colorado correctly and so very accurately states in a far less Lawyerly manner….it is all about gaining Two Democrat Senators and not at all about anything else.

    There is no mention of how the Free State of the District of Columbia shall fund its new State Government without all that Federal largesse….how it would fix its failed school system….and its myriad other problems like Gangs, Drugs,

    The Income and Sales Tax it is going to have to invent to pay the State AMD City Taxes shall be very interesting….especially knowing the high quality of its current Rulers and those in the past. like dear ol’ Marion Berry.

    1. “it is all about gaining Two Democrat Senators and not at all about anything else.”

      You clearly haven’t spoken to any average residents of DC.

  11. The Dem goal is not representation of DC citizens, but national power by getting two more senators.

    The negotiations are not in good faith.

    1. Of course that is true. It’s logical. It’s the least disruptive way to achieve their long sought representation in Congress. And that is precisely why Democrats will reject it.

      1. The Founders required citizens to be “…free white person(s)…,” restricted the vote to: Male, European, 21 with 50 lbs. Sterling/50 acres, restricted taxation to “…general Welfare…,” omitting and, thereby, excluding any taxation for individual or specific welfare, redistribution of wealth or charity, and prohibited regulation other than that of money, the “flow” of commerce among the states and land and naval Forces, denied even a scintilla of infringement on the right to keep and bear arms, provided for private property which only owners could “claim and exercise” dominion over, provided the freedoms of speech, religion, press, belief, opinion, discrimination, assembly, and it’s inverse, segregation, and every other conceivable natural and God-given right and freedom per the 9th Amendment – the Founders provided favor to none.

        The Founders gave Americans the one and only thing they could: Freedom.

        That has all been illicitly and unconstitutionally nullified and taken away by the communists (liberals, progressives, socialists, democrats, RINOs).

        “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

        – Declaration of Independence, 1776

      2. Hardly anyone lived in DC when the Founders was alive. I doubt they ever anticipated that there would be over 700,000 people living there.

        Geographically, most of DC is not federal property / doesn’t have to do with the federal government.

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