Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would grant DC statehood. It passed predictably along party lines. It has long odds in the Senate, as the bill would need 60 votes to pass, meaning 10 Republicans would also have to vote for it. Still, having every Democrat supporting this bill is a sign of progress that I hope will only strengthen over time.
The arguments for DC statehood make perfect sense to me: they are American citizens who voted in a popular referendum for it. The arguments from the right are conversely…just…bad arguments.
Taxation without representation
At the heart of the DC statehood debate is our entire foundation as a nation: adequate representation. Their one delegate in congress—Eleanor Holmes Norton—is not a voting member. DC gets 3 votes in the Electoral College, but no votes in the House or the Senate. DC residents pay taxes and send thousands of their neighbors off to fight in America’s wars. There are no voting members from DC who can influence where their tax dollars are spent or voice opposition or support for American combat missions.
They pay taxes and fight for us. Why can’t they have the adequate representation they want and deserve? DC has more people than Wyoming and Vermont. There is no distance or square mileage requirement to become a state. If Wyoming and Vermont can have 2 senators, I think DC can as well.
GOP arguments are weak at best
One argument I’ve been hearing from people like Ted Cruz is that this is nothing but a Democratic power grab. This is a strategy designed to ensure Democrats are in power for the next 100 years by adding 2 more Democratic Senators from DC. Of course, Ted Cruz is not a person willing to have a good faith discussion on the merits of DC statehood, but he is a decent weather vane to judge what the right wing of the party thinks about statehood.
The power grab argument is somewhat rich coming from the Republican Party—you know, the ones who are implementing dozens of voter suppression bills across the country in an attempt to suppress Democratic voters. But it is important to dive into the idea of fairness and balance within the US Senate and how DC statehood could help to even the playing field between the two parties. The Senate is heavily skewed towards the Republican Party and admitting DC as a state would help to alleviate this disparity.
The Senate is broken
In reality, the world’s “greatest deliberative body” is actually a broken institution. It has consistently been stymied on issues ranging from immigration to climate change to gun control, just to name a few. There are endless explanations for the Senate’s decline, including the filibuster and how leadership in the Senate is structured. But another culprit is the Senate’s heavy skew towards rural areas of the country, which then gives the Senate a heavy Republican tilt.
The Senate has a strong bias towards rural American, and rural America tends to vote Republican. Nate Silver from 538 analyzed the Senate’s bias towards Republicans in a piece he wrote after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In it, he argues that the country as a whole is pretty evenly split along four main areas: rural, exurban/small town, suburban/small city, and urban. Each of these four makes up about a quarter of America’s overall population. The average state however—the way actual power in the Senate is divided—is very different. It is much more heavily skewed towards rural areas, which take up about 35% of the average state. This means more states tend to have more rural areas even though the country as a whole is more evenly split between the four community types listed above. By extension, that means that the states that are considered “in the middle” or the swing states that will decide a Senate majority are much more likely to be more conservative than the country as a whole. As Nate Silver at 538 puts it: “The median state—the ones that would be decisive in the event of a 50-50 tie in the Senate—are considerably redder than the country as a whole.” This then leads to a distortion in the Senate: the body is much further to the right than the country truly is.
What does this mean for DC statehood? It means that by adding 2 more senate seats from DC, it would actually help to move the Senate more towards the middle of America by counteracting its already heavy bias towards rural areas and by extension the Republican Party. It is not a power grab, it is an attempt at balance.
But am I missing the point on DC statehood?
Now some argue that the entire point of the Senate is to balance the interests of big states and small states, rural and urban areas. This disparity is not a flaw in the system; it is the reason we have a Senate (equal representation) and a House of Representatives (representation based on population). Attempting to add 2 Democrats to “balance it out” would circumvent what the framers intended by creating the Senate: protecting small states from being held hostage by big states and protecting the minority from the “tyranny of the majority.”
To this I have two responses:
- The design of our national legislature was a compromise between the big and small states at the convention. James Madison, the “father of the constitution” was one of the big state delegates who argued against having a national legislature like the Senate, rightfully thinking equal representation would weld larger states to the whim of smaller states. The eventual compromise of a bicameral legislature was the only way that the framers could get the constitution ratified and unite the 13 states under a more central national government. I think it is a myth to argue that the Senate and the House of Representatives were written into the constitution because of some deep philosophical belief in “tyranny of the majority” or the Senate as a “cooling saucer” that would temper the hot legislation coming from the House. In other words, I don’t think it was necessarily out of some deep belief that this was the greatest way to form a legislature so much as it was a necessary compromise that helped the convention reach consensus. The main goal was to create a constitution that everyone could live with, defend, and get ratified. They achieved that, but not without the inevitable flaws that come with any “democratic” process (I put democratic in quotes to recognize the fact that those who decided how our system would be set up were all rich white men, leaving out large swaths of society, including women and people of color).
- When organizing political power and institutions in the 1780s, creating a national legislature around the differences between big states and small states makes sense. Those were the dividing lines in American politics. But does that sound like our politics today? Are we hearing in the news that Vermont is at odds with California over some public policy? Of course not. Our divide is among the two political parties, which were wholly absent from the convention debates. We’re using arguments that made sense in 1789 to justify our conclusions today. That makes little sense to me. Our politics—divided between Democrats and Republicans—is operating within a constitutional system where the chasm was between Delaware and Virginia. We won’t find the answers for today in the conversations of the 1780s.
DC statehood: just do it
The residents of the District of Columbia have voted and said they want to be a state. We should absolutely acquiesce to their request. Their residents pay federal taxes, they send their friends off to war, and yet have no votes in the Senate or in the House of Representatives.
The Republican arguments that this is a Democratic power grab are not persuasive enough to deny 700,000 people the adequate representation they deserve.