A few years ago, I moved a friend to Washington, D.C. One of the things this friend was most looking forward to after getting settled in was getting license plates that had the "No taxation without representation" slogan on them. Not yet a resident, he had already chosen a side in a debate that has gone on since the nation's founding about whether people living inside the federal enclave of Washington, D.C., would be afforded the same voting rights and political influence as those living in states.
It is no wonder that, as a soon-to-be resident of the district, my friend chose to come down on the side of statehood. A poll taken last year demonstrated the strong and consistent support of D.C. residents for becoming the 51st state. Eighty-six percent of respondents to the survey were in favor. The non-voting delegate to the Congress "representing" D.C. has introduced bill after bill that would create an additional state out of most Washington, D.C.'s territory. The bills get nowhere. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's delegate to Congress, would not be allowed to vote on them even if they did.
To be sure, there are technical and historical nuances to the issue. Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution refers to a "District" that shall not exceed 10 square miles and be the seat of the federal government. Maryland and Virginia supplied the land on which the nation's capital sits. A portion of it was return to Virginia several decades later. But the word "may" being used, instead of "shall," in the operative part of that constitutional passage, complicates interpretations of it. Is it absolutely required that there be a federal district? The authors of recent proposals to give D.C. statehood must think so, as their proposals preserve the areas immediately surrounding the Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court Building as a much-reduced federal enclave.
They may also see the preservation of that territory as a compromise with those who oppose their aims. Those efforts at preemptive settlement are almost certainly futile, as opponents to district statehood usually include partisan concerns in their arguments, which unfortunately, are almost always non-negotiable. Those concerns involve the composition of the Senate. Washington residents vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and Republicans do not want two seats in that body to be, almost certainly, given to the other party.
That is understandable. But the status quo leaves over 700,000 Americans without congressional representation. Supporters of statehood are quick to point out that is more people than live in Wyoming or Vermont. They also cite the economic output of the district as being larger than 17 other states. And yet, only the half measure that is the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1961, does anything to address the situation by giving Washington, D.C., residents the same number of votes in the Electoral College as the least populous state. Those three votes are appropriate, given D.C.'s population, but the amendment granting them does further complicate the issue.
But governing is always complicated, and complexity is never a reason to avoid addressing a problem. And it is a problem that nearly three-quarters of a million Americans are still relegated to a peculiar purgatory that does not exist in other democracies. Republicans call D.C. statehood a power grab. Democrats see a cynical Republican ploy to maintain a grip on power. It is time to put those considerations aside, work through the technical problems, and ensure that a large number of Americans aren't still justified in saying they face taxation without representation 245 years after the revolution we just celebrated.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University, and former mayor of Tahlequah.