Washington, DC's Mayor Muriel Bowser called for DC Statehood, demanding the nation's capital be admitted as the 51st state in the Union, this morning. This argument is hardly new, but after her speech, the talking points will now be back en vogue.
The District of Columbia has always been subservient to Congress; it didn't even have a local elected government until 1973, when Congress passed the Home Rule Act. This was not an accident; it's been this way since the nation's founding, and the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) grants Congress “exclusive jurisdiction” over the city.
Advocates for DC statehood frame the debate in terms of unfair representation, and they have a point: Washington's 670,000 residents do not have senators or voting representatives in Congress, but they still pay federal taxes, the motivation for DC's infamous license plate slogan: “Taxation Without Representation.”
However, there are two arguments against DC statehood. The first and easy one is partisan. If DC were to become a state, the Democratic Party would almost certainly add two more reliably Democratic seats in the Senate. Republicans, for obvious reasons, aren't thrilled about that.
The second argument, though, is rooted in the principle of federalism, and it's just as pertinent now as it was in 1801 when Washington, DC was established. To understand, we need to go back to 1783.
In the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress was headquartered in lavish and urban Philadelphia, but trouble was brewing. The broke Congress was struggling to pay the soldiers it had recruited to fight the British, and the now-idle troops were understandably angered.
On the morning of June 20, hundreds of armed soldiers from nearby barracks - some of them reportedly drunk - mobbed the Congress building and sealed the exits, effectively locking the politicians inside. They demanded the issue of their payment be resolved immediately.
Congress panicked. It was weak and at the mercy of the authorities in Pennsylvania, helpless to defend itself. So a team led by Alexander Hamilton drafted a secret plea for help to the governor of Pennsylvania, John Dickinson. Since Dickinson had jurisdiction over Philadelphia, Hamilton argued, he could send in the state militia to disband the mob and help protect Congress.
For reasons that historians still debate to this day, Dickinson refused, and effectively told Congress that it could not rely on the state of Pennsylvania for protection. Congress was screwed, so it did what anybody might expect our brave Congress to do: it fled.
The incident became known as the “Mutiny of 1783,” and over the subsequent years, as Congress bounced around various cities, a consensus emerged that wherever Congress ultimately settled, it would need to exercise federal control. The memories of Dickinson's betrayal were still fresh in their minds. Moreover, the new Constitution they were drafting was promoting a revolutionary new system of federalism that tried to find a balance between state and federal power. How could the federal government wield any authority if it was physically subservient to the jurisdiction of whatever state it occupied?
To resolve this matter, the Constitution took land from Maryland and Virginia and created a 10-mile square federal district, exclusively controlled by Congress, which would become the nation's capital. The country may be based on the principle of sovereign states, but that sovereignty is physically checked at the boundaries of the District of Columbia. That's the arrangement that exists to this day.
In 2016, it may be hard to imagine a mob of soldiers physically surrounding the Capitol building and holding Congress hostage. However, considering the massive size of the District of Columbia and our politics today, the modern-day scenarios are just as alarming.
Washington, DC becoming a state would, in effect, give 670,000 residents physical control of Congress and the federal machine that governs the remaining 320 million of us. Imagine: if protestors form a ring around the Capitol or some other office and prevent members from entering to vote on a controversial bill, will the DC authorities intervene? Or would a sympathetic DC government stand by and do nothing? Or imagine: if riots like what gripped Baltimore last year swept into DC, would the city government crush them to guarantee the continuity of the nation's business? Or would a sympathetic DC government declare it a more sensitive, local matter?
There's already a clear trend of attorneys general refusing to defend laws in court they don't personally agree with. It doesn't take much farther of a leap to see an activist DC government wielding its influence to subtly affect the outcomes of Congress. The fact of the matter is, things that happen in Washington, DC have the potential to involve the rest of the nation. The magnitude of the federal government's size in the District would leave it severely vulnerable to the whims of a local population.
There may be a middle ground to be reached in the DC statehood debate. But rushing to declare DC a state is not the answer. Our nation was founded on a delicate system of federalism. The struggle between states and the federal government is very real, but if there is one thing we can agree on, its that the federal government needs a place - even one as tiny as Washington, DC - to call home.