A REVIEW OF THE D.C. STATEHOOD DIALOGUE

For over 200 years, residents of Washington D.C. have lived as second-class citizens. They have no seats in the Senate, and only one non-voting representative in the House. Paying more per capita in federal taxes than any state without being given full voting rights (“About DC Statehood”), the capital’s citizens are the literal definition of taxation without representation. The ethical question here, then, is this: is it ethically defensible to withhold the benefits and freedoms of statehood from D.C. residents? According to Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and Thomas Hobbes, it is not—and therefore, Washington D.C. should be granted the opportunity to finally become America’s 51st state.

The first argument against D.C. statehood, which will be referred to as the “home advantage” angle, addresses the partisan aspect of the issue. D.C. was originally intended to be a neutral ground—and those who are against statehood believe that the federal government’s home should not be subjected to the control or influence of a “host” state (Rajasekar). The reasoning was that if Washington D.C. affairs were handled exclusively by the government, there would be no risk of pressure from the state or “rigging for the home team” (in this case, the Left). It is true that if granted statehood, D.C. would be the most partisan state: in all 4 of the most recent presidential elections, over 90% of residents voted in favor of the Democratic candidate, and in the last 12 elections, the lowest percentage of blue voters was in 1980 at 74.9% (“District of Columbia…”). For this reason, the statehood proposition is usually seen by Republican voters as a power grab by the Left.

It is true that the Constitution does include a section about a “neutral ground”—but it includes neither indication of size, nor any specification that this neutral ground should include anything more than government buildings. There is also no global precedent for the “home advantage” argument: citizens of capital cities in democracies around the world, such as Rome and Paris, DO have the same voting rights as their non-capital-dwelling peers. Why should it be different for D.C.? Right-wing opponents of statehood have also stated concerns regarding a perceived over-representation of the Left (“Editorial: Why D.C. …”), but rural America is already over-represented in the federal government—in fact, the reason that the North and South Dakota territories were split in the first place was so that Republicans could have extra Senate votes (Asch). If anything, it would be evening the playing field to give representation to a state that is entirely urban. Further, D.C. has a higher population than both Vermont and Wyoming, and a population difference of less than 100,000 with both Alaska and North Dakota. 

From an ethical perspective, consider Thomas Hobbes’ contractarianism, which dictates that the reason we are willing to give up certain liberties is so that we can benefit from the protections of a larger government entity. By this philosophy, the current situation of Washington D.C. and its lack of representation is clearly unethical. With no Senate representation and only one non-voting delegate in the House, D.C. only has a voice during presidential elections with 3 electoral votes. What is D.C. paying taxes for if the federal government doesn’t allow it a fair voice? Why should it matter if that voice is partisan, when the real issue is a breach of contract between government and governed? Consider also Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” thought experiment. If D.C. is of similar population and financial responsibility as existing states, and if other capital cities around the world are allowed equal participation in their countries’ politics, then does it make moral sense to deny D.C. the ability to participate equally? From an impartial, distant perspective, is partisanship truly a good enough excuse for this denial? Rawls would say, definitively, no.

The second argument comes from a residential perspective. D.C. was never meant to be a place where people lived permanently. It was intended as a place for representatives and other officials to spend temporary blocks of time, returning to their home states after they were no longer needed for government affairs (Rajasekar). There is also the issue of land: DC exists on land that was borrowed from Maryland (and originally Virginia, though that was ceded back in 1847). This presents a constitutional issue as well; because according to the United States Constitution, a state cannot be formed from land belonging to another state without the existing state’s consent (“The Admissions Clause”). In the past, three states have received this consent: Maine (from Massachusetts), West Virginia (from Virginia), and Kentucky (also from Virginia). In order to advance, D.C. would have to get consent from Maryland. Opponents of statehood have made arguments that ceding Washington D.C. back to Maryland would be a more effective way of giving voice to its residents. 

Regardless of the original intention, however, Washington D.C. has become home to a host of non-officials. And regardless of the Republican push for retrocession as an alternative to statehood, neither D.C. residents nor the citizens of Maryland want to go back. They have been separated for over 200 years, and some describe the push for annexation as being as unnatural as rejoining Maine and Massachusetts (Applebaum). Earlier this year, a D.C.-Maryland Reunion Act was introduced by Republicans—essentially, a retrocession proposal where most of D.C.’s land would be returned. Less than a fifth of D.C. residents polled were in favor of this, while 57% of Maryland citizens were against it and 51% favored granting D.C. statehood. In contrast, a 2016 vote showed that 85% of D.C. residents were in favor of statehood (Applebaum). 

Interestingly, according to representatives of both the D.C. mayor’s office and leading statehood advocacy organizations, no retrocession advocates have met with them to discuss the topic with locals: an indication that perhaps the motive behind this movement was less of an act of solidarity and more one of pursuing Republican interests. This motive seems unethical: Kant writes in Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means.” (34). In purposefully neglecting D.C.’s desire for statehood but still using the cause to further their own political standing, this proposition effectively treats the district’s residents as a means rather than an end. Further meditations on Kant’s philosophy note the role of consent in “using” people, and come to the conclusion that “a person can rationally consent to being treated as a means just in case he has sufficient reasons to consent to it” (Kerstein). However, by failing to communicate with D.C. officials or organizations, conservative retrocession advocates’ actions do not meet the conditions of consensual “use” and are therefore not ethically justified by Kant’s standards.

A third argument has to do with the would-be state’s finances. If D.C. were to become the 51st state, there are significant costs involved—they would have to budget for all of the annual costs of statehood. This has been estimated at around 755 million every year (Flynn), a number that could potentially be doubled based on how pension and a few other factors are handled in the transition, which remains uncertain. Those against statehood for D.C. reason that the financial burdens of statehood ultimately outweigh the freedoms that accompany it, and argue that the district is not financially equipped to handle all of the new responsibilities it would take on as an independent state without federal support.

D.C. non-voting representative Eleanor Norton says that the district does not want to continue receiving the “special treatment” it gets from the federal government, and that its residents overwhelmingly value statehood over cost (Flynn). In addition to this, D.C.’s current status places it in a unique disadvantage in terms of raising revenue. While it is tasked with practically all the same responsibilities that other states have—handling schools, emergency services, Medicaid, and so on—it must do so while simultaneously being prohibited from taxing non-residents’ D.C. income (which represents over 60% of revenue). This is an issue that, as a state, the capital would not have to deal with because state income taxes include income from non-residents (Rivlin). As a state, D.C. would also be able to lobby for federal grant funding as the other states can. They could also revise their prison system to reduce costs. Yesim Sayin Taylor, the executive director of the D.C. policy center, also said, “It should not be decided on the merits of finances but on the merits of voting rights and representation” (Flynn).

John Rawls would agree with Taylor’s assessment—freedom should always take priority over financial gain. The Equal Liberty Principle states that every person should have the same ability to participate in the political process, and that voting is a right of all people. This takes priority over the Difference Principle; which means that from Rawls’ perspective, no reasonable citizen should be willing to give up rights such as voting in the pursuit of financial gain (Bae 5). By implying that Washington D.C.’s citizens are better off with fewer rights and more money, anti-statehood advocates overlook Rawls’ prioritization of basic liberties and their argument is therefore not ethically sound.

By the ethical considerations brought forth by John Rawls, Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant, it is not ethically defensible to prohibit D.C. any longer from accessing the benefits of statehood. This is true regardless of partisan disagreements. It is true regardless of who lives there and who simply works there. And it is true regardless of the financial implications D.C. would have to address in becoming a state. America presents itself as one of the world’s most powerful democracies: if this is to be true, then it is morally imperative that the U.S. government extend this democracy to the residents of its own capital.