What The Constitution Says About D.C. Statehood

September 18, 2019

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday is scheduled to host the first hearing on the topic of D.C. statehood in 25 years, enabling the Washington, D.C. Admission Act to take a step toward getting passed. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser has spearheaded the latest campaign, most recently hanging American flags with 51 stars. Locals have been outspoken on social media, suggesting D.C. residents deserve the right to vote for congressional officials. 

While proponents suggest voting rights are at the core of the issue, there is also a constitutional question at play, said John Harrison, a law professor at the University of Virginia. 

Congress has the authority to admit a new state, but Harrison said lawmakers might need Maryland’s consent to add the District. The constitution says one state cannot be created within the territory of another state without that state’s consent, Harrison told WPGC. 

The 23rd amendment, which gives D.C. residents the opportunity to vote in presidential elections, also leaves room for subjectivity, Harrison said. The amendment implicitly assumes the existence of the District but doesn’t say the District must continue to exist. 

“Whenever I look at a proposal to admit D.C. as a state, what they really do is shrink the District,” Harrison said. “The White House, Supreme Court, those central territories would remain. It’s the reason the constitution provides for federal area that isn’t in any state. A state [without those] would be quite small.” 

The current bill would create a state from the eight wards, allowing D.C. residents to elect two senators and a representative.

If D.C. became a state, residents would no longer be subject to “congressional override of the D.C. government,” Harrison said. D.C. would also become financially independent of the national government, giving it full taxing authority. 

To advance the statehood efforts, Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, D.C. resident Kerwin Miller and Congressional Research Service lawyer Kenneth Thomas are among those who will speak to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. 

When the House voted on D.C. statehood in 1993, the bill wasn’t approved. Harrison said the same outcome could be expected.

“Proponents of D.C. statehood believe they have a better chance to get it not right now but in the foreseeable future,” Harrison said. “They’re trying to lay the foundation for that. It could come sometime in the next several election cycles. They want to be ready for it.” 

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