Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser called for a referendum on applying to Congress to make D.C. the 51st state. In doing so, she begins another chapter in the discussion about voting rights in the capital that has been going on almost since the creation of the republic.
The Constitution granted the federal government the right to create and govern a federal district, which they did in 1790. The city of Washington was incorporated in 1801, at which point its residents lost their state citizenship and, with it, their right to vote for Congress or for electors for president.
The result was a lacuna in the Constitution. Some Americans' voting rights were now denied them, through no fault of their own and with no way to regain them. In 1847, the problem was solved for Washingtonians south of the Potomac, when Congress retroceded that part of the District to Virginia. Washington gained the right to choose presidential electors in 1961. It remains, however, a territory with no representation in Congress, and no serious likelihood of obtaining it.
Bowser thinks the solution is to admit D.C. as the 51st state. That would solve the problem, but it would also create new ones. The new state ("New Columbia" is one proposed name) would be the smallest state by area and second-smallest by population. The same people endorsing statehood routinely decry the "unfairness" of a Senate that gives equal representation to Wyoming (population 563,767) as it does to California (37,254,503). Admitting "New Columbia" would only increase that disparity.
The cause of that convenient change of heart is political: New Columbia would be the most reliably Democratic state. (Opposition to the new state from Republicans who defend the equality of the Senate reeks of the same political expediency.) One solution could satisfy partisans on both sides: Retroceding the District to Maryland. Adding a Democratic city to a Democratic state will not change the balance of power in the Senate, where Maryland has been represented by Democrats since 1987. Washington is roughly the size of one House district, so the Democrats would gain a seat in that chamber, but one seat out of 453 does not make much difference.
Retrocession is inarguably constitutional: The partial retrocession of 1847 has never seen a constitutional challenge. Further, while the Constitution grants the power to establish a federal district, it does not require it. Statehood, on the other hand, raises constitutional questions. Congress acted within its powers to create the District out of two states' territory, but creating a new state is a different matter. As Article IV states: "no new States shall be formed … within the Jurisdiction of any other State ... without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned." The federal government may keep Washington as a district, but to admit "New Columbia" requires Maryland's permission.
Retrocession has been mooted before, most recently in a 2013 bill proposed by Louie Gohmert. That bill reserves a bizarre polygon of downtown Washington as a federal district, separating the government buildings from residences. Even this is unnecessary. The historical reasons for having a federal district are no longer relevant. The Constitution's authors feared that having the capital in a state would make that state too powerful. James Madison explained in Federalist 43:
"dependence … on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other [states.]"
These were valid concerns about a new federal government, but they no longer make sense. There is no danger of Maryland overawing the federal government, nor would the feds rely on Maryland for protection. Federal law enforcement would continue to protect the government, just as they protect federal properties around the country. The federal government is not the fragile creation it was in 1790.
Madison imagined that "every imaginable objection [to a federal district] to be obviated." In this he and his fellow Founding Fathers erred, but their error is correctable. By ceding Washington back to Maryland, we can fix this hole in the Constitution's logic, and restore voting rights to 600,000 Americans.
Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania. Read some of his other writing at kylesammin.com, or follow him on Twitter @KyleSammin. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.